Wednesday, August 27, 2008

On Being Asian

So what the Hell does it really mean to "be Asian"? Honestly?

I just came back from a meeting with one of the main organizers for an Asian-American youth conference - the ONLY Asian-American youth conference in this city - and it brought up a lot of different thoughts and insecurities for me.

My part in this meeting was to basically take over the operations and planning for the small-group workshops at this conference, as well as a number of other details that play a large role in the overall picture of this conference for high school students. And I went into it full of confidence because I have a lot of experience working with kids as a teacher, and also as a facilitator (which is the role I would be in for this conference). No big deal, I thought. I'm Asian, my identity is important to me, and I have no problem facilitating activities and discussions with kids of all backgrounds.

Seemed simple, right?

Not really. Because this meeting reminded me of something that I am always aware of, but that doesn't play a large part in my life: "Asian" can mean so many different things. "Asian-American" can mean even more. It can be people with Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Malaysian, Mongolian, or Eastern Russian backgrounds. It can be first-generation, second-generation and beyond. It can mean all sorts of mixes with all sorts of other races. It can encompass overachieving "model minorities" and "at-risk," gang-affected youth. It can mean me. And it can mean kids with backgrounds and experiences totally different from me.

And that's the funny thing - because I feel like I'm pretty damn good working with kids of all sorts of backgrounds. I can reach out and establish relationships with white kids, black kids, Latino kids . . . all no matter their economic background. And I do it all the time - that's what I do for a living.

But the fact of the matter is - ironically enough - that I have never worked with a large population of just Asian kids. Never.

And I suddenly found myself wondering if I can connect. If all my ideas and plans that work so well for all the other youth I work with would work as well with this group of kids. And I know - logically - it shouldn't make any difference. It shouldn't. But, somehow, it does.

Because I've always had a strange relationship with my Asian-ness. In school, I was accused of being the "Asian sell-out" at times. It really bothers me that I don't speak Chinese. It bothers me that I've never been to China and don't carry out many "Chinese" traditions. I wonder how "Asian" I really am.

Because, in some ways, I identify more with brown hip-hop culture than Asian-American culture. I know more about indie-rock than I do about Malaysian, Thai, or Korean culture, for that matter. My upbringing was far from "traditional," and I love exploding Asian stereotypes that many Asian communities like to uphold (in regards to academic success and expectations, more quiet, passive demeanor). And I wonder how much I can really represent these kids whose conference I'm about to shape.

In my gut, of course, I realize that nobody - no matter how "Asian" they are - can really represent the hundreds of kids that will be there because "Asian-American" is such a broad category. A first-generation Vietnamese girl who grew up struggling with poverty will share little with a third-generation Japanese male who grew up upper-middle-class. Neither of them can be represented by a recent Indian immigrant. And that is part of the farce that is "Asian-American." That is being "Asian" at all. A quasi-racial category that spans such disparate ethnicities and cultures and religions - and yet is still accepted as a valid way to categorize people - by other races and "Asian" folks, themselves.

It's so ridiculous. To the point that it is practically a crime. Of course, we all know how seriously the dominant white culture takes crimes against other cultures, so I won't hold my breath waiting for a response.

And so I realize that my specific background is not that important when it comes to being part of this conference's organization. I identify with being "Asian" to a degree, and my confusion as to exactly what degree and how connected I am to that broad category only makes me more like all the other "Asian-Americans" out there (I presume). Which makes me perfectly suited (and qualified) to lead it.

And so I will. Because I'm Asian, and I think talking and thinking about all of these things is important. And that's that.

* On a sad (but not surprising) note - I learned that the budget for this conference is significantly lower than that of the African-American and Latino/a youth conferences in this city. Once again, I am faced with the sad fact that such a broadly-identified community either cannot or will not come together to try to effect change on a larger level. So many thoughts run through my head about the how and why (culturally, logistically, etc.), but the fact remains that - if I want to see something done right, it looks like I'm going to have to do it myself.

Monday, August 25, 2008

On White Culture

"The Devil's finest trick is to persuade you that he does not exist!" - Charles Baudelaire, 1864*

Now, I don't hold to a theory of "white devils," but this quote seemed way too perfect in a conversation about white culture. Because one of the most tricky aspects of white culture (from here on I speak of specifically white American culture) is the belief that there is no such thing.

I hear it all the time - white folks speaking to how "jealous" they are of people of color because of their cultural "roots." White folks saying that the reason they are drawn to "exotic" cultures is due to a lack of their own.

Well, I'm sorry to burst that little bubble, but American white people - you have a culture. You really do. And part of the reason you find that so hard to believe is that it is intrinsic in that culture to believe that you have none.

Let me explain here. One of the major aspects of American white culture is the belief in individuality. "Everybody's unique." We're all a bunch of snowflakes**. It is inherent in white culture to box in other people (of any race) and then follow up with an explanation of how I - myself - am not part of any particular group. It's one of the cornerstones of the American Dream - every individual can "lift themselves up by the bootstraps" if they work hard enough. We are all about the "pursuit of happiness" as opposed to a pursuit of familial security or community or any other such thing. And so, with that as one of the highest pillars of American white culture, it is exceedingly difficult for white folks (or those brought up in said culture) to then consider themselves as a part of that culture. Clever, isn't it? And frustrating . . .

In contrast, few cultures of color hold individuality in such high esteem. The family is often much more important in those cultures than in white culture. Identification with the group (nationality or ethnicity) is also very important - so much so that people of color often feel that they must represent all people of their race in whatever they do. Not so white folks. How often do white folks deny their responsibility for the actions of others of their race (positive OR negative)? Because they are all individuals.

What else is important to white culture? Logic. Reason. Controlled emotions. Folks raised in white culture often will talk about how "loud" other races are. When people display open emotion - raising their voice - they are seen to be "out of control" or even violent. Problems should be reasoned out and solved with logic. The world around should be understood through science and objective observation.

And this is a HUGE reason white folks have such a hard time understanding the experiences of people of color. Because logic does not really come into play when race becomes involved. Race cannot be understood through observation and scientific reasoning. Race must be felt to be understood. White people like to tell people of color that they "understand" where they are coming from because they logically understand the sentiments - when no person of color would ever think that their situation is truly understood in those moments.

White culture is a patriarchal system. Men dominate and make decisions. "God" is male. Women are seen as emotional (again - as opposed to "reasonable") and physically weak. Stay-at-home mothers are not valued the same as the male "breadwinners."

Youth and vitality are honored and revered. Movie stars, athletes, models - young, attractive, imitating the perfection of Greek/Roman gods and goddesses. Elders are seen as old infants - needing to be cared for (and often sent to nursing homes).

In other cultures, the mother goddess is all. Elders are revered for their wisdom and experience. Ancestor-worship is common. Unrelated elders are still objects of respect - to be obeyed.

White culture emphasizes the importance of time. "Time is money." Being on time is vital. Businesses live and die by next-day delivery. We can "waste time" or "spend time." What we do with our time is an investment in our futures. We work our asses off now, so that we can get paid or retire weeks or years on down the road.

A majority of non-western, non-white cultures feel quite differently about time. There is nothing wrong with sitting around, chatting and reinforcing existing relationships instead of working. Being an hour late just isn't a big problem. Work is meant to take care of current needs - planning for the future is less important than simply enjoying the free time of the present. Those raised in American white culture often mistake these cultural differences as "laziness."

Is this starting to make some sense? Does it hurt to see where these white cultural traits hit home? And again - I emphasize that these are cultural traits of white America - but it doesn't mean that it doesn't affect people of color. Who are the racial "sell-outs"? Who are the PoC who "act white"? Why - it's the ones who have a stronger connection to white culture.

And other cultures within the confines of the States are not immune to assimilation. As the generations go by, you can watch youth of color start emphasizing more and more of these white cultural traits. Because cultures are fluid, and they are spread via exposure - as opposed to explicit teaching. And so American media implants these cultural "givens" in the minds of all its viewers.

And it's important to be aware of this. Although few lay claim to an explicit understanding of white culture, American white culture is understood. It's why people refer to white cultural traits as "normal" as opposed to the distinctions necessary to identify the other side. It's unspoken and taken for granted because it is so pervasive. And because of that, it becomes identified with "normal" and stops being interesting or "exotic" enough for white people to be happy with it. And then they start claiming they have no culture and start looking to borrow from somebody else.

And this is not to be confused with white privilege. Because people of color can definitely partake of white culture without partaking of white privilege. But an understanding of white culture can then lead to easier explanations as to why it's so hard for white folks to be aware of their privilege.

There is so much farther I can go with this - and I will, in time - but I think this serves as a good primer for understanding of white culture. And with this basic understanding, a dialogue between different racial cultures becomes a little bit easier. Because it's hard to comprehend and respect cultural differences without consciously knowing where you stand.

I would love to hear some opinions on this matter, so please feel free to comment.

* Yes - I did originally hear a version of this quote in the movie "Usual Suspects"

** I always wondered if it was more than coincidence that snowflakes are white.

*** Of course, I didn't just make all this up. Many studies have been done on white culture and the pieces I mentioned here have been consistently brought up. For those who want more information, hit me up in the comments, and I'll see how I can help.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

On Real Diversity

I'm going to get right to it: the photo above? Not "real diversity." That photo is propaganda. A couple token people of color thrown into a mix of white folks in business attire. Diverse nothing.

When I talk about "diversity," I'm not talking about photo-ops. I'm not talking about political correctness or anything else that most idiots think of when they say "diversity." No - I'm talking about a real mix of people, cultures, opinions, appearances, etc.

So what has me on this topic? Ridiculous as it may seem to those that have not shared my experience, I'm talking about the camp I just spent the last month working at. An experience I've loved and longed-for for 4 years running, and this year it became most clear to me what is so special about that experience: real diversity.

The kind of diversity most people dare not see in their lives. Diversity of opinion and ways of being. Diversity of experiences. The last month I spent time with immigrants, youth, my elders, homosexuals, first-generation Americans, Native Americans, athletes, artists, hippies, hip-hop artists, writers, rich folks, poor folks, middle-class, youth workers, maintenance workers, students, teachers, professors, at least 7 different languages spoken . . . the list goes on. And that was just the staff. We had racial diversity covered, as well, but not in that way of finding token folks to fill gaps. The people of color were diverse in background, opinion, and culture, as well.

I didn't agree with everybody. I didn't appreciate everybody's music or art. Not everybody liked the things I like. Some of them HATED some of the things I enjoy. We said things we shouldn't have, at times. We called each other out. We held each other accountable. And we RESPECTED each other. Every last one of us. And damn, did we all learn a lot from each other.

And that's what real diversity is about. It's about learning. It's about being tossed right out of your comfort zone, shutting your mouth, and learning from somebody that you wouldn't have chosen to be learning from in your own ideal "perfect world." Because people don't actually WANT true diversity. We want the kind that looks like us, speaks like us, agrees with us. We don't truly want diversity of opinions and experiences - because then we get offended, and our own personal truths get challenged. And so we stick with token diversity and call ourselves "open-minded."

But sometimes, we find ourselves in a position in which real diversity surrounds us. I wanted to work at this camp. I did not choose (mostly) the people that I worked with. And so I found myself living in a small community (about 80, when the kids were there) made up of a truly diverse population for a month. And it filled me up. And it made me need more.

I can't even begin to catalogue all I've learned from being out there. I learned about the MOVE movement in Philadelphia from a man who lived it first-hand (if you don't know that story, look it up). I've learned about life on the res and the Native American world in the United States. I've been exposed to up-and-coming hip hop artists and folk singers, as well as established hip hop artists, rock and roll stars, and poets. I've talked about life in Thailand, Venezuela, Mali, Cuba, Vietnam, Mexico, Turkmenistan, Russia - all with people born in those countries. I've had real conversations with the rich white head of one of the biggest advertising companies in the world (associated with Coca-Cola and Nike). I've shared my fire and experiences with rich white board members to kids of all races living in poverty. I've learned some sign language from a deaf cook and celebrated the upcoming marriage of a gay woman. I've argued with all of them, and I consider all of them friends - most of them knowing me better, in spite of our vast differences, than most of the friends I've known for years.

All in four one-month chunks. And that's only the beginning.

And I only wish that there was a way to make this happen in the "real" world. I've thought to myself, 'I just need to hang out with these folks more in Portland.' But that's not true. Because, in Portland, I would be hanging out with these folks in their own social circles - where this kind of true diversity would not exist. Because people are not willing to put in the time to get to know people that don't fall into their own, "safe," comfort-zone level of diversity. And that's so sad.

And I don't really know if I have any solutions. There must be some, but I struggle to come up with any. Because I know this is something that is important - I know that my soul NEEDS this - but I have no idea how to get it. I have no idea how to consciously create real diversity in my own life. Because knowing them all and hanging out with them individually is not enough. I want it all in one place. I want that beautiful mixing of ideas and ways of being that creates something new and amazing. One-on-one is better than nothing, and I have that - but I want MORE.

Because I have seen more, and now there is no going back.

Friday, August 15, 2008

On Fire

I'm back. Back from Central Oregon. Back in Regular-Internet-Access Land. And it's time to get this blog back in order because it looks like I lost my readership over the last month. We'll see what I can do about that.

Anyway, I spent the last month working at an arts camp. Of course, that statement does no justice whatsoever to the work I was really a part of - because this place is far beyond an "Arts Camp." We serve primarily "at-risk" kids (I still hate that term, but it gets my point across) in a sort of relationship-based program that echoes the style of the school I teach at. It's not hippies in the woods (although there's some of that). We bring hip-hop and consciousness, as well. We work with the kids year-round to keep them in school and safe. We bring artists from diverse backgrounds (we actually have professional artists of color that teach there). We work hard to represent the kids we work with.

So, all that said, we have a contingent of Native American kids (from the Warm Springs res) that come to camp each year (our kids are about half from Central Oregon, half from Portland). And, luckily for us, we have a Native American staff member, as well (Klamath tribe). We'll call him "S." S just so happens to be a good friend of mine (a bond formed in the last four years of us working together at this camp). The two of us actually get confused by kids (and staff, sometimes). Not because we look like each other (because we don't, at all - not even similar body-types), but because of our skin-tones and racial "ambiguity." We're not black. We're not white. So we must be the same thing.

Obviously, I have no qualms talking about race with people. Neither does he. And we both love bringing up issues of race and cultural diversity with the folks around us (especially when educating "well-meaning white folks"). We also both feel that kids are smart enough to be exposed to a bit of unvarnished truth from time to time - and that kids of color NEED that.

And so, we collaborated on a spoken-word piece that we performed at camp (for the kids, staff, and - best of all - donors and board members) that I'm going to share here. Granted, it hits much harder when performed out loud, but reading it gets the point across. His lines are those in normal type. Mine are in italics. Lines that we speak together are in bold.

Nothing more to be said. Enjoy:

I’m angry that my people are still suffering
From genocidal tactics and unnecessary killing
Unwilling to share with us our own homeland
Banned from the sacred places we used to roam
Home is no longer here among our war parties

And hardly mentioned in that history is the part my own played
Hair in coolie braids, train tracks run over our backs – until none of HIS land remained
The only truly successful colony – made with the blood of my people and slaves
Then claimed as “free” by those with European names

Treaties were broken, remaining only to cause us pain
So much has been taken, barely leaving us with a name
Fame has been given to cowardly cowboys
Who got their strength from numbers no value in the coup
True to nothing least of all their word
It wasn’t a voice that leapt from their tongues though; it was more like a poisonous disease
Or maybe it was a disease working its way through our water with ease
Teasing us with false promises
The land and water weren’t enough though
Next they ravaged the plains and took the buffalo
Now many were starving and thirsty
Our land plagued, animals slaughtered, and our water dirty
Soon they would be coming in great numbers
Promised freedom and all the riches they could lust for
Their true intentions lied with the cavalry and George Armstrong Custer
Under false pretenses they started killing using all the strength they could muster
They wanted to rid the land of us savages it mattered not if they were women or children
They tried to kill us all. They had such hate for our red skin

And within few textbooks will you read our suffering
Ever hear about the Rape of Nanking?
That’s rhetorical, because I know you didn’t
Hundreds of thousands died in weeks – but nobody was listening
Rape, murder, torture – but Western ears heard not a word
You know the Holocaust – God rest their souls
But Asian lives lost – and y’all just shrug your shoulders
Burmese slaughtered right now, crying out – and half the world just moves right on

Been suffering far too long
They tried to have my entire race erased through genocide
Historical trauma left to take care of the rest through homicide and suicide
We were forced onto reservations without hesitation
Devastation ensued as we were moved from territory to territory
Our freedom fading like a distant memory
Sovereignty has been the common goal
But it has been hard, because as a whole we have been relocated and terminated
Our culture deemed uncivilized until it was generalized that we were one with the land and people became fascinated

Culturally appropriated –
Sip green tea in a Buddhist monastery with a neck-tat of Chinese calligraphy
Do they really even know what it means?
“Pan-Asian” only exists in their restaurants, we’re completely different ethnicities
While the less-palatable aspects of Asian-ness are cast aside
Like those “submissive” Asian women, tried, used, and made trophy wives
Fetishes as dimly veiled racism mixed with sexism
Call me “exotic” one more time, and we’ll see that I don’t need kung-fu to show how I feel about Orientalism

Alcoholism became our trademark, or what we were famous for
More to get away from the memories of abuse and neglect that have been trickling down from generation to generation

Caucasian barbarians brought us opium to enslave us in our own nation
Bigger guns deemed more “civilized” by Western “civilization”
And now they call us “foreign” and fight immigration
Because our labor isn’t cheap enough when we’re here
Keep us far away, so they can wear their slick sweat-shop gear
Without feeling sick inside
Because they don’t have to see the blood that gets ripped from yellow hands
Then drips into all the unnecessary garbage they buy

And yet here I am with my head held high
Setting a good example for young Natives to live by

And I – I just want you to broaden your minds
Mostly with love, sometimes with fire – I remind everyone about history’s true racial ties

Showing them the positive standards and morals in which I live my life
So that one day I might be the one they look to in moments of strife

And I can be a strong Asian voice to help the shy ones to rise
Helping them realize we can stand up and non-violently fight
Exclusion by the majority

Constantly thriving to be a positive member in my under represented minority
Hoping one day I’ll be a brown role model in a position of authority.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

On Stereotypes (My Own)

So, in trying to be (or become) a somewhat politicized person of color, I often find myself in conversations about race (in the real world or online). And, holy crap, do I get sick of some of the repetition that occurs in those conversations, primarily, claims by other people about not having their own prejudice or - worse yet - being "color blind."

Every time I hear that I want to stick a fork directly into my eardrum, so I never have to hear it again (or into that person's voice box). Seriously - every time.

So why does it bother me so much? Because it's so ridiculous. And unnecessary. We all know that everybody else has prejudices and stereotypes in their heads. We also know that, in spite of that fact, there are still plenty of conscious people out there trying to make things better. It's human nature - we like to group things (and each other), and that's impossible without adhering to stereotypes (because, otherwise, there are so many more ways that each individual is different from any other than alike.

Therefore, if we take that knowledge just one extra step, we get to this: we all have prejudices and stereotypes in our heads. Not just everybody else. All of us. That includes you. And me. And that's okay. Because unless we acknowledge those stereotypes and prejudices and consciously attempt to handle them, we'll just live them out in our daily lives - and contribute to them. I'll go into more depth on this sometime in the near future (re: ignoring our problems doesn't make them go away), but that's not the point of this post.

No, the point is to return to my previously-mentioned statement: that we all have stereotypes and prejudices. And that includes me.

See? I'm going to start off the honesty-fest here by just acknowledging my problems. At least the ones I'm conscious of. Because it's this consciousness that helps me reduce their effect (if not get rid of them entirely). It's this consciousness that helps me teach kids while minimizing the amount of harm I do them - minimizing how often they feel like an "other" in my room. Ideally - it would never happen. But I'm not naive, nor am I a liar, so I do everything I can to see it when it happens and make sure it never happens again.

The big one - especially in the context of where I live and work - is that kids of color (specifically black and Latino) tend to be more "at-risk" than white kids. "At-risk" of getting involved in gangs. "At-risk" of being affected by poverty, drugs, single-parent homes, etc.

Now, statistics would argue that this is "true." Maybe it is. But if so, it is only "true" on a vague, generalized level, and I do my kids injustice if that's where I come from when I work with them. If I assume that their parents are going to be less involved in their lives, or that education is not as important to them, or that gang affiliation is a likely factor getting in the way of their success. The minute I feed that - in any way - the minute I cause that to be a reality. That's when all my kids start thinking that that is a truth. And that's when justifications start falling down: why it's okay for cops to target kids of color, why kids of color can't get educated, what kind of parents men and women of color are. And that's not okay.

It also affects the white kids negatively. Not just because it enforces their own prejudices, but because it doesn't give them credit. So often I see youth workers in Portland that like to emphasize how "troubled" the kids they work with are. That take a sick sort of pride in how "at-risk" their kids are. And, generally, they emphasize the color of their kids - because we all know that kids of color "need us" so much more, that they are more violent and "hard to reach," etc. Again - I'll address this in another post, but the point is that this hurts the white kids out here that live in the same world. They might have a few more theoretical advantages, but the second I try to start playing the "who needs help more" game, I'm hurting kids. And judging them more or less fit for extra effort. It also deems certain kids less able (kids of color) to help themselves.

And that's bullsh**. However, it pervades our society and the work I do, and I will say flat out that it confronts me, at times. I often feel that - as one of the few people of color (especially males) in my line of work - I need to put in the extra effort to pull up kids of color. And that does everybody an injustice (myself, included).

And that bleeds out into the rest of my life, as well. When I run into a group of Latino or black kids, I am more likely to assume that they are like "my" kids - the kids I work with. Which might as well just play into the white world's fears of poor, gang-afflicted and thuggish kids of color. Which also ignores the fact that the majority of the kids in my school are white - and almost nobody in my school isn't affected by gangs, violence, drugs, etc. My "scariest," most violent kids happen to be white kids. And yet I still fall back on the media stereotypes when walking out in the world - in spite of my personal experiences.

Switching gears, there's my prejudices about white people - namely that they are naive and blind to their own privilege (and ignorance). Sure, I have all sorts of experiences to "justify" those feelings (On Not Trusting White People), but that doesn't change a thing in regards to what it is: a stereotype. A prejudice. I'll say flat out that I'm more likely to give a person of color the benefit of the doubt over a white person. And that's not okay. And - again - people of color in my life don't exactly have the best track record in terms of their own understanding of races or experiences not their own, yet I still act on these stereotypes.

Asian folks? I have to admit that I cringe inside when I buy something from yet another Asian corner-market store owner. I want them to bust up that stereotype because I know it feeds everybody else, and those feelings end up causing me to treat them differently. It borders on self-hate. Not that I hate Asian shopkeepers, but I tend to mentally deal with them as a stereotype - and not as the individuals they are - which is exactly what I get pissed off about other people doing. Sure - I give them the respect that I assume others do not, and I converse with them (going beyond the accent) like I assume others do not - but it's the same way, each time. As if it is not a different person at each shop, but the same person that I switch into "respecting Asian shopkeeper mode" with. And I hate that.

I feel uncomfortable at Chinese restaurants, assuming that the servers and everybody else are hating me and my mixed background. Or I feel that they are denying my "Chinese-ness" every time I end up with a fork. I lump them in with experiences I had in Chinatown with my grandmother - not accounting for variability in behavior and perceptions even though I live in a very different city, and those here have different stories.

I have stereotypes of rural white folks (assuming they want to shoot me) when most of the time, those are the white folks that have been most real with (and subsequently, respectful of) me. I have over-the-top prejudices against "hippies" and "hipsters." I have stereotypes of white youth workers. I assume that obese people are sad, deep down. I expect gay men to have secret crushes on me.

Get the picture? I'm filled with stereotypes and prejudices. And that's a bit scary - because I am so consciously aware of how media representations work on our generalized "social consciousness" - and yet that does not make me immune to any of it.

But this is the key - I search within to find my prejudices, and to expose them. Every time I interact with somebody I mentioned above, I reach out, grab the corresponding stereotype, and do everything in my power to throttle it. On a general level, that usually works. Not always, of course, but I seldom act on those stereotypes when I am so conscious of them.

No - it's the sub-conscious ones that do the damage. Those are the ones that cause real problems - because I am unable to reign them in without being consciously aware of them. And that is why I continue to examine my thoughts and feelings when confronted with any type of person, looking to find another stereotype to smash.

It's also why I get so scared and frustrated when I meet other people who tell me that they "have no prejudices or stereotypes." Because - if they really believe that - then there's just no hope, whatsoever.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

On the Right to Claim One's Own Identity

It seems appropriate that I found the picture for this post on a police site in reference to "identity theft." Obviously, they meant it in terms of fraudulently using another person's information to steal, whereas this post is about race - but is there really that much difference in how people see it?

As a bi-racial person that walks in the "gray area" between races, I have elected to choose how I identify myself, racially, based on my various experiences and how my life has played out as a result of those experiences. On a general level, I call myself, simply "mixed." Being more specific, I will tell people I am "bi-racial, with a white dad and Chinese mother." If really pressed on the issue to decide my final word on my racial identity: I am a mixed-race Asian-American.

Just to clarify - that last "identity" I wrote up there? That's one thing. It's a specific racial experience. The "mixed" part of it speaks to my physical ambiguity and the subsequent variations in racial treatment I have received from others. The "Asian-American" part of it speaks to my specific cultural connection to my Chinese side (and my subsequent "priority" of representing and bringing up Asian-Americans in this country). Put it together, and that's what I am.

Because, of course, neither one on its own fully speaks to who I am/what my experience has been. I'm mixed/bi-racial, but so is Barack Obama, and I would hesitate to say that we share a whole lot in terms of racial experiences. Sure, we could probably have a nice chat about the "gray area" and all that, but there would be a huge piece lacking for both of us in that conversation. And that's where the included "Asian-American" aspect comes in. Because that's what changes the experience from a generalized "mixed" blanket (which is so very wide) to my more specific situation.

And there have been debates upon debates in the media and elsewhere about this: is Obama "black" or "bi-racial"? All I can say to this is - obviously, all the people having this "debate" (I'd argue that it's pretty one-sided by both parties) are no mixed or bi-racial. Because there is no debate at all - he's a bi-racial black man. Period.

This "one or the other" crap is so decidedly mono-racial and close-minded. It again illustrates how hard it is for people to believe in or trust an experience different from their own. Mono-racial white folks think that this claim denigrates Obama's white mother. Mono-racial black folks think his claims to bi-raciality are "selling out." As a result, both sides mistrust his "intentions" in the claims he makes. All I can say to those folks is: yours is not the only racial experience. There is so much more out there that you have no clue about, and I respectfully ask you to open your eyes and mind to other possibilities.

Because Obama has clearly paid respect to his white side. And he has equally made clear that he is aware - personally - of the black experience and means to do something about that. It's not one or the other. It's both. That's the beauty of those of us in the middle - we have no need to "play sides" or "have it both ways" because we can't. We're equally of both sides and fully neither at the same time.

It never fails to blow my mind how often mono-racial people (of any race) like to try to tell me how I should identify. Those very same anti-racists that would tell others never to assume or pretend that they "know" what another racial experience is like are the same ones who - often - tell me "what I am." Nobody wants to claim us mixed folks until it's convenient - and to that, I say, "back off."*

Now, am I arguing that anybody can choose to identify themselves however they want, racially? Hell no. I had a conversation with a white friend once, and he asked me how I thought of myself, racially, so I replied, "Well, I definitely don't consider myself 'white.'" To that he responded, "I totally know what you mean - I don't consider myself white, either." Record-scratch - WHAT!!!???

If you're white, you're white. I don't care how many different "mixes" of European ancestry you have - you're still "white." If you live and breathe white privilege, it's not okay to take that privilege one step further to try to take on a different race. There is white culture, and just because it's not "exotic" enough for some people doesn't give them a right to steal other ones.

Whoo! And that general rule applies to everybody else - if an ethnicity isn't in your blood, then you can't claim it. I've been thought to be Latino many times - but I sure as Hell wouldn't claim to be Latino, even if that was the majority of my experience. I blend in with native Hawaiians and some Native American tribes more so than my actual racial precursors, but that doesn't make it mine.

So - racial claims must be rooted in blood and experience. It is an insult to all people of color to think it works otherwise. Stealing is no way to respect another way of being.

And so we bring it back full-circle to the issue of identity theft - in short, if it's not yours, don't claim it. If you have to make a circuitous argument to back a racial claim, then - likely - it's not yours to claim. As for us mixed folks - as our mixed-blood dictates, we are a combination of racial experiences, so let's just put an end to non-mixed claims to the contrary right now, okay?

Okay. Thanks.

* I'd actually use more choice words, but I'm feeling "teacherly" right now and don't feel that swearing is appropriate.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

On Not Trusting White People

So, we’ve been over the fact that I definitely do not consider myself white.* So, that said, I would like to touch on my particular issue that I have had with white folks, in general – trust.

Now I know there are people out there that will instantly cry “racist” and suggest that I hate white people by making a blanket statement like this.** That is not the case, and I hope to make that clear through this post (and from what I’ve already written in this blog).

I should say that I have walked through and lived in a mostly white world. My schools growing up were predominantly white (although my social circle wasn’t). Most of the people I ended up being around in college were white (with some notable exceptions). As a youth worker, I end up having mostly white co-workers. And I have plenty of close white friends, so this isn’t an intolerant hate thing. It’s an experiential thing.

Again, we return to EXPERIENCES and how they shape us. From my experiences with white people – some of whom I considered friends – I have learned to be wary of surface-level acceptance from white folks as a person of color. Some examples:

- I mentioned before ("On Not Being White") how my white friend’s parent bought into my made-up “Chinese.” An adult being so ignorant of the world around her that my made up sounds were legitimately “Chinese” to her.

- In middle school, there was a kid I knew (we got along relatively well, I thought) who was getting teased and picked on by a bunch of kids. I wasn’t part of it, but I was standing and watching, feeling bad for him and trying to decide what to do (yeah – of course I should have stood up for him, but it was middle school). Suddenly, he turns to me and yells (through his tears) “why don’t you just go back to where you came from!?” I was shocked, at first – where the Hell had THAT come from? But then I snapped out of it, and I had my first fight based on race. But I still carry that feeling of shocked betrayal – to save himself, he found a racist hate within him to fling my way, even though I wasn’t one of the people hurting him. That was probably one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned about racism – hurt people hurt people.

- The summer after my first year of college, I was back in my home town at a party hosted by one of my old high school friends. Another white friend (we’ll call him “J”) brought some of his college buddies by. Well, let’s just say the college buddies were assholes, and it led to a fight. I got in there and broke it up, and my friends and I basically had J’s college buddies take their friend and leave. As that happened, the kid who had been in the fight made a comment about “that Buddha-looking motherf***er” (me), and I watched as J laughed in response. I wanted to kill him. And, again, submerged racism reared its ugly head when I wasn’t expecting it.

- In college, I was at a party with some friends, sitting on the front porch. A white kid comes in (a friend of some of my friends), talking about a fight he just almost got into. He told everyone how he had seen a bunch of Asian kids hanging out on their porch and when they wouldn’t bum him a smoke he yelled, “F***ing chinks!” The people on the porch with me laughed at his story – including some of my “friends” (those that didn’t, of course, said nothing).

- I had a white ex-girlfriend who was dating another bi-racial (white/Asian) guy. When I asked her what his specific background was (Chinese, Japanese, etc.), she said she didn’t know and was shocked when I told her that that was something she should ask. When I told her that likely really mattered to him, she argued with me and asked, “How would you know?” She later said she was surprised that I hadn’t “dealt with” the fact that I never saw people that looked like me around since I should "be used to it by now."

- Here, in Portland, I have had numerous white “liberal” males talk to me about how much they are into Asian or “exotic” women. White liberal females talking about race in a group of white people (and me) and how they “know how it feels” because one time they were the only brown-eyed person amongst a group of blue-eyed folks. Then arguing with me when I tell them they don’t know what they’re talking about.

- I have worked with white youth workers serving kids of color – who clearly target black and Latino youth in ways that defy understanding. Then, when I brought it up with my superiors, they told me my “expectations were too high” of my co-workers and nothing was done. Later, when I asked for a diversity training because I was so worried about the racial dynamics I saw at our school (and wanted a safe place to talk about it), I was told they would make it a priority – only to see it never happen (over six months of school after my request). And this is a boss that I respect and admire in so many ways – probably the best boss I’ve ever had, on a general level.

There’s more, of course. There’s always more. But I think these stand-out examples cover the themes I think need to be covered to explain why I don’t trust white people. Because - I remind you - these were friends or people that were in a position of (potential) trust. These weren't the overt racists (mostly) or bigots that I avoid. These were the white folks willing to be friends with me. People in positions where they (generally) had good intentions about race. It is the fact that these things still happened in spite of all that that made them so damaging. And so, with white people now:

I don’t trust that they don’t have some ingrained racist notions that they hold back because they know it’s not appropriate – only to have it come out when under duress, or when they need a scapegoat.

I don’t trust that they are truly my allies – that they will do more than just talk, actually standing up for me and my own when it really matters (whether or not we're around).

I don’t trust that they don’t make racist jokes or comments when I’m not around (or they think other people of color are not around).

I don’t trust that they see women of color as more than objects – that they actually care about the ethnicity and culture and experiences behind them.

I don’t trust that they are really listening or actually want to understand race and privilege on anything but their own terms.

And I don’t trust that those that work with kids of color actually do it out of respect, as opposed to white supremacist notions that “backward” cultures of color need a white savior in order to become civilized.

I don’t trust white people. And I have plenty of reason not to.

But there are exceptions, to be sure. I have two white friends here in Portland, “F” and “A” (incidentally, both with Jewish blood), who have never let me down in this regard. Who I know are not afraid of race and are willing to really check themselves in regards to it. Who do not deny their natural prejudices, and thus are able to confront and move past them.

But, unfortunately, I have found them to be the exception, thus far. And so I continue to distrust white people, even after I have befriended them to some degree. Because I never know when they might just side-swipe me with ignorance or (worse) outright racist notions.

So, to any white readers – please think on this, and see if privilege has caused you to make this impression on others. Are you to be fully trusted as an anti-racist ally? And to my readers of color – any stories of hope to combat these negative experiences?

I hope there are.

* If you haven’t read it yet, read “On Not Being White.”

** Other people have said it better than I can, but “racism” implies power and privilege, so it gets old when white people accuse people of color of “racism.” I can definitely be prejudiced, but let’s call if what it is, okay?

Saturday, August 2, 2008

On Cultural Appropriation

What is "cultural appropriation"? Boiled down, it's taking something from a culture that isn't yours. Period. There are all kinds of different explanation behind that definition - positive forms, negative forms, etc. - but that's pretty much what it is: taking from somebody else's culture.

Now, this is something I've thought about a lot, largely due to my bi-racial background. Since I feel like Chinese culture is not really "mine" in a number of ways, I make sure that I think carefully about any Chinese cultural traditions or values that I want to take on (or re-adopt). In simple cases, I make sure that I am asking family members who actually grew up with these traditions or values to explain it to me. In situations where that is not possible, I try to do as much research as possible in advance - so that I truly know the story behind it. And if it feels right, then I try to engage it with as much respect and honor and self-consciousness as I can.

But it gets sticky - because taking on traditions that you did not grow up with is difficult. There are a lot of opportunities to make mistakes and accidentally make a mockery of what you are trying to honor. And the question always follows: what gives me the right to try to adopt this tradition? What is my purpose behind it? And am I ignoring larger parts of the culture as a whole to just pick and choose what I like?

Mind you - this is how I feel about my attempts to gain a better foot-hold and understanding of Chinese culture, one I am linked to by blood and immediate family members (although my grandmother's death severed the most direct link). And I still don't quite consider it my right - to some degree - to take on aspects of this culture, since I was not raised fully "Chinese." It's difficult.

However - it becomes much less difficult when a person has absolutely no blood or birth link to a culture. Then - it becomes simple cultural appropriation (and I seldom use that in a positive way).

Now, by no means is "cultural appropriation" solely a problem of white people, but it stands out more in that context. First, because white people in America often lament the lack of their own culture*, and so try to compensate for this perceived lack by borrowing from others. Second, the situation of white privilege often puts white folks in a naive mentality where they believe it is their right to take from any culture that they desire - that being barred from that would be "unfair" or "not inclusive" or (this is the one that I hate the most) some form of "reverse racism."** So I will mostly address "cultural appropriation" from an angle of white folks borrowing from non-white cultures (but repeat that it can go in a lot of different ways).

The most obvious examples (ones I see here in Portland all the time are): Zimbabwean marimba music, "African" drumming, Brazilian capoeira, and Zen Buddhism. I'll just try to hit them up in order (and, by no means are these the only ones).

There is a large contingent of white "liberals" in this town who love to play Zimbabwean marimba music. Now, I'm not going to go into the psychology of this obsession, but let's just say these folks are REALLY into it. Which should be fine. Because music is an art-form that should be shared and appreciated cross-culturally. However, these white liberals like it so much, they learn to play it. Again - not so bad, as learning to play a kind of music is a form of further appreciation (if in the comfort of their own home).

No - the problem is that these white Americans form "Zimbabwean marimba" bands, that play "traditional" Zimbabwean marimba music. First off - how can they possibly be a "Zimbabwean" marimba band, if none of the players are Zimbabwean (and I do know, for a fact, that they aren't - and I'm talking about multiple bands)? Second - why the Hell are they playing "traditional" Zimbabwean music? It is not their music. How is it "traditional" if Zimbabwean people aren't playing it? Some of these bands sing in Shona.

My question is why? Why? Why this kind of absurd theft? Appreciation is one thing -but this is mockery. It is not honor or respect. Respect is not claiming to play "Zimbabwean" music if you are not, yourself, Zimbabwean. Respect is not singing in a language you do not speak fluently, nor do you have opportunity to speak on a (very) regular basis. Respect is not stealing "traditions" out of context and that have no direct connection to you.

How could this be okay? Well - if these groups just said they played marimba music. Maybe make a nod to "Zimbabwean influences," but without a claim to play the music. If they NEVER played anything "traditional," and if they sang songs in their own damn language. Music is all about influences and adapting styles to your own. Therefore - if they truly like the music, they can adapt it to have songs with lyrics relevant to their own lives, in their own language. Why try to pretend to represent Zimbabwean music, when a Zimbabwean band could do so much more effectively? Why believe that that is okay?

On another level, this kind of thing bothers me in that very little else of "Zimbabwean" culture is known or actively appreciated by these folks. Seldom have they been taught by a Zimbabwean teacher, nor do they have any true Zimbabwean friends. They - perhaps - may know some Zimbabwean folks (not always), but never are those truly their friends. People they see and talk to regularly. Confide in, listen to, support, etc. So if they are not willing to put in that effort and social investment, how have they the right to profit from somebody else's culture in this way?

That's what kills me.

"African" drumming is much the same. I don't need to go into it in detail, but it's even worse, in some ways (because - although different styles of drumming in Africa are similar, most people are learning West African styles - specifically Ghanaian, Senegalese, or Gambian)***. Again - appreciate, learn (from an "African" at least), and play - but never claim it as "African" and please go immerse yourself in the culture - all of it.

Quickly - capoeira. For those unfamiliar with capoeira, it is a Brazilian martial art/dance style with roots in the African slave trade in South America. As slaves were not allowed to practice anything that resembled aggression or violence, these slaves (and later, their ancestors) disguised their martial arts and rebellion as a dance - capoeira. It's a beautiful story - quite inspiring. But - again - it kills me when I see an all-white-American troupe doing an exhibition for even more white folks. Practice on your own. Learn from a Brazilian master. But don't f-ing exhibit it in public as education/entertainment. If any of these things were truly for only the person, themselves, out of respect and appreciation - then there would be absolutely no need to bring it to the masses - that is the job of those whose culture it is. And if they don't choose to do so - respect that and don't take it upon yourselves.

Finally - Zen Buddhism. This one's more sticky for me because it's (vaguely) a religion. But it bothers me. As a (part) Chinese-American, it bothers me that the majority of Buddhists and Buddhist temple-goers in this town are white. That feels wrong. White Buddhist "monks" choosing Chinese or Hindu names - when they don't speak Chinese or Hindi (except for a smattering of terms). This one hurts me more as a representation of Orientalism**** than anything else. Because - obviously, this one is less public and more personal, which treads on territory I don't have a right to dispute. However . . . it doesn't feel right.

So - a number of examples, but there are so many others out there (I'd like to hear other people's pet-peeve forms of cultural appropriation). But it all boils down to - do not share what it is not yours. Do not presume to teach what you have not been immersed in. Learn only from those who have right to claim it. And question - deeply - your need/interest in learning and taking on aspects of another culture - and why it is only that one single aspect of the culture you are taking on, while leaving all the rest. Doing anything else is an insult. Anything else is disrespectful and smacks of privilege and ignorance.

And causes me to get all uppity and pissed off.

This is a topic I could go much deeper into, but I think that would work better as a conversation or dialogue. So, hopefully there are some timid non-commenters out there ready to ask some questions and get some clarification (and to challenge me if I sound just too sure of myself, and too judgmental).

But I leave you with this - we all learned as children (most of us, at least) that - if it isn't ours, we should leave it alone. And if we borrow something, we should do it with the intention of giving back. Why should culture and tradition be any different?

* I'll address this is at a later date, but - in short - I call B.S. on those claims.

** This will be an even longer post. Just thinking about it has me ready to spit fire.

*** I suppose the "Africa is not a country" post will have to happen sometime, as well.

**** This single post has touched off so many future off-shoots - the Orientalism discussion definitely needs to happen.