Sunday, October 26, 2008

On Asian Domination

I really enjoy seeing Asian people being better at things than other races. I really do.

Isn't that kind of f-ed up?

I just got home from watching a hip-hop dance showcase that featured a number of different dance crews from the Pacific Northwest, and I enjoyed it a lot. It wasn't the best talent in the world, but it was good enough to make an entertaining show, and some of the dancers were pretty good.

But guess who the best crew was? Yeah - that's right - the all-Asian crew. And if you don't know much about the hip-hop dance scene (specifically b-boy, but other forms, as well), Asians kind of dominate on a general level, these days. And so there was a very noticeable Asian presence at this show (both performing and attending), and it was really nice. In this town, where I seldom see Asian folks outside of very specific areas, it was nice to not be the "only one" by a long shot. It's also nice to see so many other Asian folks at a hip-hop related event (even if it was just dance).

And it was especially nice to see the Asian folks represent by making most of the other crews look a little shoddy.

Because I LOVE to watch Asian people dominate. I got all into tandem diving during the Olympics because the Chinese men were so much better than the other competitors. I'm all about international b-boy competitions because the Koreans win so handily on a regular basis. I loved watching Jet Li kick European asses portraying Huo Yuan Jia in "Fearless." "Letters from Iwo Jima" was a fine film, but it pissed me off.

And, in some ways, it's so very odd that I root for all Asian people against the world in this way. Because I have as much in common with most Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, etc. as I do with the French (maybe less). I'm so damn American in so many ways, and yet I will always clap happily when Daisuke Matsuzaka strikes a guy out. I love it when somebody's Ford gives them engine trouble while I drive my Toyota without a hiccup at 165,000 miles.

But I'm not Japanese. At all. I have no Korean blood. The Mongols invaded China, but I'm still a fan of Ghenghis Khan. I've still never been to China.

And yet . . .

It's a testament to the power of race in America that I am this way. That, in spite of all the opportunities I have been presented simply by being an American citizen, I have more conscious loyalties to foreign nations that have no connection to my blood, just because of hair color and the folds of our eyelids. That I have lived through media representations and stereotypes for so long, that it makes me want to cheer every time an Asian man kicks ass publicly. That the dominant people of this country have considered me "foreign" so long that I identify that way.

It's crazy. Because I am so American. My mannerisms. The way I dress. How I talk. My values. All so typically American. But, somehow, I have been pushed away from that identification.

And it's not even just Asian people that I root for (although they're at the top of my list - just being honest). I find myself hoping that Brazil scores a hundred goals on the American soccer team. I laugh when the Kenyans win another Boston Marathon. I hope that Jerome Iginla is the key to his Flames winning ten straight Stanley Cups (in the NHL).

Because - no matter how much I have gotten from this country, and how "American" I am, through and through - I can never think of myself as fully belonging to this nation, because those running this country do not look anything like me, and never have.

And until that changes - every four years tandem diving will be one of my favorite sporting events.

Monday, October 20, 2008

On Axe "Dark Temptation"

Okay. Maybe I'm too sensitive. Maybe I "can't take a joke." Or maybe this sh- is f-ed up.

So Axe body spray (a heinous concoction of carcinogens in a spray can, aimed at adolescent boys) just came up with a new "scent" that they call "Dark Temptation." The idea behind it is that the "scent" is reminiscent of chocolate, and since women "can't resist chocolate," they will also not be able to resist he who uses the spray.

Obviously, there's a lot wrong in that simple idea - but that's all about stupidity, and I don't really need to go there. No, I bring it up because I randomly saw an ad for the spray the other day, and it kind of bothered the Hell out of me.

The ad starts with a white guy spraying himself with Axe, and he suddenly turns into a dark-brown-colored "chocolate" man. The rest of the commercial is him going around town seducing white girls (I specify white here because there are no other races evident in this particular commercial) by his simple "chocolate" presence: women are licking him, biting him, chasing him, etc. And then it ends with the statement, "Axe Dark Temptation, as irresistible as chocolate."

And - again - there's a lot wrong with that whole concept on a sexist tip, as well - but that's the whole Axe commercial angle, and I'm sure somebody has addressed that better than me. What stood out to me was the overt racial implications of the NAME of the spray, "Dark Temptation," and the entire commercial. Because the white guy pretty much becomes a black guy when he sprays himself. Sure, he's "chocolate" and there are little jokes made in terms of that fact, but it's hard to miss the change in color (and tone) when he sprays himself and becomes "irresistible."

And I point out that all the women in the ad are white here because I've seen other Axe commercials, and - if I remember correctly - not all of the women in other ads are white. So this one stands out. And so I can't help but notice that it plays pretty perfectly on the whole racial stereotype and perceived dynamic between white women and black men. And, to finish it off, it's called "Dark Temptation." I mean - damn. It's not "Chocolate Temptation." It's "Dark Temptation." If you read that as a title of a romance novel (which it actually is), wouldn't you have some assumptions on what that "novel" was about (turns out the real one isn't, though)?

So then I go to check out the website to find the commercial to link to this post, and I see that they have an "Axe Dark Temptation" video game to play. So I boot it up, and guess what? The whole game is to be walking down the street as your chocolate-y "dark" self, trying to escape white women who can't help but try and get a (literal) piece of you.

I don't know. Sometimes I think I'm just getting too damn sensitive about everything, but this one really popped out at me. And I know that the people it's geared for (young white kids) aren't going to really be able to make that conscious connection, but it seems pretty obvious to me.*

But why take my word for it? See for yourself and let me know if I'm just too ready for a fight these days.

Axe Dark Temptation Commercial

* Not to mention the "chocolate man" looks pretty much like a white guy in classic "blackface" - what with his buggy white eyes and big, white teeth (mirroring the painted-on white smiles of minstrel shows of yore).

** And the "d--k in the box" reference with his "chocolate" fingers . . .

Thursday, October 16, 2008

On the Politicization of the CVT

I haven't always been like this. I haven't always thought long and hard about race in America, or about globalization, or "humanitarian aid," the education system, etc. I haven't always written treatises and essays on the subject-matter to share with the public (apparently with enough skill to have people agree with me and want to read more). I haven't always written highly political (and angry) spoken-word and hip-hop lyrics (also shared with a public audience). I haven't always been willing to stand up and speak my mind loud and true. I haven't always been so passionate about how I feel about anything - let alone these specific matters.

So how did it happen? WHEN did it happen? When did my self-adopted moniker of "CVT" change from a tongue-in-cheek reference with one white friend to an identifier for a politicized, mixed, Asian-American man of color in America?

I don't think it started in the Bay.

I grew up in a world that was actually somewhat diverse. My public high school didn't have the highest number of black kids (it didn't QUITE have the lowest, either), but it did have an interesting mix of races. Specifically, it had a number of other mixed kids. There was a good amount of Asian kids. My close circle of high school friends constantly joked about our diversity in terms of "the most diverse" fill-in-the-blank when we were together (Indian, white-Filipino, white-Chinese, black, Mexican, white, Jewish, white-Mexican - all represented). Sure it tilted more towards white than anything else, but I didn't stand out in my group of friends for my race - because we all kind of stood out for our race.

So I didn't feel weighed-down by race (consciously) through my high school graduation. Sure, my first real fight was because a white kid told me to "go back to where (I) came from." I had Asian kids at school call me a "third-rate Asian sell-out." But I didn't analyze it too specifically - and definitely not on a bigger-picture level.

But then I went to school in Michigan. And I think that's where it began. Because there, races didn't mix a whole lot. The Asian kids chilled with each other. Same with the black kids and the white kids. People hadn't been exposed to other races in the same way that I had been in the Bay, and I started to see things. I was paler there (longer and colder winters), and I often got to hear people talk ish about other races in front of me (including Chinese) as if I was another white kid that wouldn't care or be bothered by it. When my mixed Mexican-white girlfriend came out to visit from California, I found myself having to give "friends" the heads-up, so they wouldn't say something stupid in front of her. When some of my black friends threw a party, I had to deal with the aftermath - a white friend getting all riled up because he felt "unwelcome" there, and how "unfair" it was that they gave him looks like that "just because (he) was white."

But I kept my mouth shut in Michigan. I thought about it some more. It burnt me inside. But I still didn't digest it fully.

So then I went to study abroad (and then live) in Tanzania for a year and a half. I watched the white kids on my trip go off and freak out about standing out so much. How the Tanzanians needed to just "get over" the fact that the students were white and foreign. All the while, it hadn't really phased me - because I was used to it. When I was working for an NGO out there, my boss apologized to me for all the Tanzanians calling me "Mchina" (basically the equivalent of "Chinaman") instead of "Mzungu" (which is what they called all the white foreigners) - as if that was an insult.

And I watched how the (generally white) ex-pats working for NGOs to "help" the people of Tanzania lived the colonial life while doing so. Staying in their own gated homes with satellite televisions and electricity and running water while the locals had none of the above. I fought with my "boss" from the NGO over how the Tanzanian teachers we worked with were treated. How the white folks felt that it was okay to tell the black folks how they should do things in their own country. And I stopped keeping my mouth shut. And ended up getting (more or less) fired from my "volunteer" NGO job.

I came back to the States fired up, but still not fully politicized. I had this anger and a knowledge of how things were going wrong without a real direction for it. I didn't know how to speak it. The people I had known had no way of understanding my experience.

So I randomly moved to Portland, Oregon. The whitest city in the U.S.

When I moved here, I mostly listened to indie-rock music. I played guitar. I bought a keyboard to play and record "funny songs" on a cheap sound program on a beat-up laptop. I started writing sarcastic "raps" because I couldn't sing. I came up with a "funny" stage-name of "Count von Triloquism" for my faux-hip-hop. I lived with two white guys (one a conservative we found on Craisglist). I was a lab assistant at the VA hospital.

And I lived my life. I walked through a world that was SO DAMN white. I went to pot-luck parties with self-proclaimed "liberals" that surrounded themselves with more white folks and listened to bluegrass, folk, and indie-rock. I met American-born white boys who played "traditional" Zimbabwean music.

I quit my VA job and started working with kids. I worked with white, middle-class youth workers who had good intentions, but thought they were "saving" poor kids of color. They forgot to mention that most of the kids they worked with (although still in poverty) were white (because it didn't sound as impressive, or "real"). I started writing an "entertaining" blog with posts in the form of letters to inanimate objects.

And then I ended up working at a summer arts camp that actually employed other people of color. I assisted a mixed white-black (ex) slam poet who had no problem speaking her political mind, and who convinced me that poetry was meant to be HEARD, not read, and that it could actually be cool. When I got back from camp, I got hired to teach math at an alternative middle school.

I fell in love with a Jewish girl as she started questioning the "liberal" hippie social circle that surrounded her. She actually wanted to hear about my struggles with race and identity and supported my conscious push towards more colorful social surroundings and a hip-hop cultural standing.

I went back to work at that same summer arts camp, and I got a little more serious. I started writing rhymes about my racial identity. I started to stand up and speak for the kids (and staff) of color involved with the camp where I saw points being missed. I began to appreciate the importance of my role as a male youth worker of color in an occupation where we're decidedly lacking.

And now I'm here. Turning that "cheeky" faux-rap moniker of "Count von Triloquism" into the CVT by which I'm now known in certain creative circles (the blogosphere included). I see myself as a racial translator in multiple areas of my life: translating the perspective of kids (and adults) of color into language that my white co-workers can understand. Translating that same perspective into a lyrical form for Portland audiences (relatively diverse, considering, but always guaranteed to house some "liberal" white folks). And doing the same for an internet audience. In a matter of weeks, I'll finally live with another person of color (for the first time since Tanzania).

And I feel like it's finally coming together. I'm almost ready to bring my artistic side (music and lyrics) to this blog world and vice versa. To share these - my real thoughts, my passion - with people who know me, personally (other than a very select few). Tonight, my mom will hear me perform my poetry for the first time - and I imagine that will be an interesting conversation-starter, for sure. The next step is to finally talk to my dad about how my racial mix has affected our relationship.

And this is only the beginning. I still feel raw and amateur. I can only imagine how the next five to ten years are going to go down - and how loud my voice might get by then. And I hope some of you reading this now come along for the ride to see where it all ends up.

No more cheekiness for me (mostly). "Count von Triloquism" is no longer what the CVT stands for. Maybe some of you out there can figure out something more appropriate - but, for now, the CVT stands for a raised voice, questioning "the way it is," and sharing my particular perspective with a larger public. And I think that's how it's going to be for a long while . . .

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

On "Miracle at St. Anna"

This photo kind of sums up how Spike Lee must have felt about the end-product when he finished putting together his film, "Miracle at St. Anna."

I'm not a film critic. And I do admire Spike Lee and the responsibility with which he has pursued his film career and subject-matter. But all I can say is, "What the f---!???" Seriously.

The back-story to this film is something powerful: the so-called black "Buffalo Soldiers" serving in WWII; fighting for a country that still gave them no rights; soldiers obtaining more power and freedom in the military than they had in their civilian life. And yet . . . and yet this film was so full of cheese-ball B.S. that I wanted to cry. WHY!!?? WHY!!??

How could Spike Lee have made this film? It has just as much in common with the ridiculous slap-stick "Life is Beautiful" as any other war movie. If anything, it probably sets back the story and respect for the Buffalo Soldiers of real life, as opposed to doing them justice and honoring them.

And I just don't get how that happened. Spike Lee is a big deal. He had the final say on all of this. He is the one who chose the terrible, soap-opera soundtrack. He's the one who directed the "Chocolate Giant" to play a Bubba-Gump stereotype of a black man. He was the one who filled the movie with ridiculous "oh-so-cute" ABC Family moments of a scruffy-haired white child that talks to his imaginary friend and works miracles.

So how? How? This is the same man who directed freaking "Malcolm X." The same man who called out Clint Eastwood for the lack of black soldiers in "Letters from Iwo Jima" and "Flags of our Fathers." And his response? Disney Films meets . . . meets what? I don't even know.

I wanted this movie to be good. I wanted it to convey its message with strength. I wanted the poor reviews to be just another indication of white America's inability to stomach racial truth.


Saturday, October 11, 2008

On Kids and Race

Some comments on a post at Racialicious caused me to feel the need to write this post. In short, the comments were talking about students self-segregating themselves by race (white kids sitting with white kids, black kids with black kids, etc.) and whether or not that was a "bad" thing. Well, here are my two cents.

I'm a middle school teacher. Currently, the school I teach in is about 50% white, 35% black, 14% Latino, and then one mixed-Asian kid. And the kids definitely DO self-segregate themselves in the classroom, lunchroom - wherever they have a choice of seating arrangement for themselves.

And the question always comes: is this a "bad" thing. Shouldn't we be getting the kids to mix it up? Does it mean that the kids are already "racist" and we're only encouraging that by letting it happen?

There are different ways to look at this, but in the end - for me - my answer is that this is perfectly fine. There is NOTHING wrong with it, whatsoever. It just depends on how it's all handled.

Because the thing is that kids come in to school insecure. They're scared. Middle school is all about hormonal fluctuations, awkwardness, and embarrassment. And so they come in on hyper-alert for anything that might knock their already-crumbling sense of self all the way down.

So - at the beginning - they want a sense of security. And the first, most basic sense of security comes from feeling like the rest of the people they are around are "like them." It's what we continue to do into adulthood - looking for people "like us" to be around, spend time with, and establish close relationships with. So, for the kids (and before they know any other students all too well), they rely on the most basic instinctual indicator of likeness that they can find: physical appearance. That includes clothes (dressing "goth," "skater," "hip-hop") as well as race, but when people talk about self-segregation, it's race they are looking at, and it's the most obvious.

So the black kids end up sitting with the other black kids. White kids hang with white kids. Latino with Latino. And the one mixed-Asian kid sits by himself. And - especially at the beginning - that's okay (with the exception of the lone mixed kid).

Because it helps the kids find a comfort level with school. And without that particular comfort-level, they would head into classes a little more on edge, a little more ready to find a fight (or a breakdown).

No - the REAL problem is the way this phenomenon is generally perceived and/or acted upon. White people are generally the most disturbed by this particular situation. White people get horrified by "all-black" fraternities. They get intimidated when the people of color are all hanging out together, and they talk about how "non-inclusive" that is. They call it "reverse-racism."

And the same idea is put onto self-segregating kids by white teachers. But I have a secret for you all: what are the only schools where this kind of segregation DOES NOT happen (when the kids have choice)? Think about it . . . Think . . . Right - the only schools where this doesn't happen are the schools that are heavily dominated by one race (90% or so) - where there are not enough students of another race to successfully self-segregate. Where the kids that don't make up the majority are at a horrible disadvantage - isolated and on edge due to standing out so strongly. And, normally, this is in mostly-white schools (but it's definitely true at mostly-black schools, as well).

So what does self-segregation at a school indicate? True numerical racial diversity, plain and simple. But it's hard for white teachers to see that, because they live in a world (generally) that DOES NOT HAVE that true numerical racial diversity. Let me say that again - the world white teachers live in does not have true numerical racial diversity. Not that the U.S. doesn't have a level of racial diversity, but that the circles and social worlds that white teachers generally walk through are NOT truly diverse.

They may have their token friends of color, but their worlds are probably highly white outside of - perhaps - their schools. Because most teachers are white, middle-class college graduates. And most white, middle-class college graduates do exactly what they fear their kids doing: self-segregate. They hang out with other middle-class college graduates who (statistically-speaking) are going to be white, most of the time. But it's not obvious that they are self-segregating in this way precisely because large numbers of another race (or more) are absent. They say, "my group of friends is diverse" because they have those two black friends, and three gay friends, and an Asian friend, while all the rest are white and straight. That's NOT diverse.

And let me say again that I'm generalizing. But it's still valid. And it's mostly the same with the teachers of color, in all likelihood- because we adults tend to self-segregate, as well. But the key difference is that white people tend to fear that when it's made obvious - by the presence of a large number of racial minorities - while people of color understand that as a fact of life. For us, it's a survival technique in a mostly-white world.

And that's where the fear and defensiveness come in when white folks see self-segregation happen in front of them. The simple fact of their own, isolated self-segregation causes them to not be prepared to deal with large groups of another race doing the same. They call themselves "open-minded" because they "allowed" a couple people of color (that come from their own narrow background) to be their friends, and they call those at a mostly-black party "reverse-racists" because their asses weren't kissed when they walked in the door. It's why seeing self-segregation in a school as a "threat" is a mind's clever way of veiling prejudice and a desire to "protect" the white kids.

But I digress. My point being that self-segregation is perfectly natural and the fact that it is possible reflects the numerical diversity that kids need to not feel isolated when in school. To be a little less fearful that a teacher or classmate is going to pick on them or be "against" them because they don't have other people like themselves around. And that is hugely important in a middle school setting (and anywhere, really). And that level of comfort opens up a kid's confidence enough to live out the following situation (which I will end with, as a positive note):

One day, in my math class, one of my black students raises his hand. When I call on him, he asks, "Why are all the black kids sitting on this side of the room, and all the white kids are on that side?"

My guess is that a white teacher without a true knowledge of diversity would hem and haw and change the subject. Luckily, I'm not a white teacher. And so I respond by asking him, "That's a good question, why do you think that happened?" The rest of the class period is spent in an all-class dialogue where we look at social dynamics of race, stereotypes, the need to fit in, etc. Every kid shares their opinion. Every kid has something insightful to say.

After that? No - all the kids didn't start sitting in a completely mixed racial arrangement like in a political photo-op. But they interacted with each other differently, and had a better understanding of themselves and why they chose to be where they did -without it necessarily having to be a "bad" thing or about "not getting along."

And that's just fine with me because that conversation never could have happened in a school where there were too few kids of color to self-segregate, in the first place.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

On Fatigue

I'm tired. Beat down. The weather has taken its turn for the overcast worst, and I'm waking up in the darkness again. The kids at school are equally beat down, and so it comes out in their behavior, which calls for more energy and effort on my part. I have meetings, after-school activities, and I have been looking for a new place to live as I have to move out in about a month.

So I'm exhausted and haven't had a whole lot of energy left over for well-thought-out posts on the race experience from my personal perspective. Not that I'm not thinking about it or confronted by it every damn day, but I just don't have the push to write it down (and to do it well). Bad timing, considering I'm finally getting some real traffic on this site, but you do what you can do, and I have to keep my creative lyrical writings (and performance) going, as well - and they take priority these days.

Point being? I'll get back to action soon, but I'm tired, and so I'm just giving a heads-up. However, as tired as I am, those folds at the corner of my eyes are NOT a result of fatigue.

I'm saying that because I found myself typing "epicanthal folds" into my Google search the other day to make sure I was spelling it right, and this is the third entry that popped up: "Epicanthal folds - symptoms, causes, tests." Every other site is still about epicanthal folds from a medical standpoint, but the wording was just perfect for that one.

Yup. Another beautiful example of the "being 'other' in America" syndrome. Considering the billions of people on the Asian continent (and the fact that many African-American folks, indigenous peoples, etc. all have them, too) - you'd think that epicanthal folds might fall into a category of a NORMAL human attribute. That the first consideration isn't of their medical import, but of their typicality when it comes to (perhaps) a majority of people in the WORLD.

And yet: "Epicanthal Folds - Symptoms, Causes, Tests." I'd like to know what kind of TEST I could ask for for MY slanted eyes. Maybe I have Down or Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

Because it couldn't be that I'm NORMAL. No. It's something to be worried about, because, obviously, the people using the internet are white people. White people who have "normal" eyelids without these pesky folds at the corners, and the only reason any of these "normal" eyed folks would possibly be typing that phrase into a computer would be to figure out WHAT IS WRONG with them or somebody they love.

Do I really need to say anything more to make my point? Does this make clear just how omnipresent the messages that identify white as the "norm" are in this country (and world, to some extent)? And does it give you all a moment's thought on what it might be like growing up in this country when you don't fit into the understood category of "normal"?

Yeah. That's another reason I'm tired.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

On Driving in the Rain (and Talking about Race)

It was raining this morning as I drove in to work. Not too bad - a VERY light rain. The kind of rain where it's almost better for my vision to not even turn the windshield wipers on at all. And yet - everybody around me was driving like idiots.

Alright - so that's my opinion, but everybody really seemed to be driving like we were in the midst of a typhoon. They were driving ten or even more miles below the speed limit, constantly slamming breaks for no reason, and being so tentative and defensive in their driving style that it was outright dangerous.

And this wasn't the first time this has happened. Oh - no. I live in freaking Portland, Oregon and even though it rains almost every day through the late fall, winter, and early spring - people always drive like this in the rain. Defensive. Slow. Dangerous. And a little bit crazy.

It doesn't make sense. There's no reason for it. You'd think the regularity of the rain would change something. But it doesn't.

And it's almost the exact same way when talking to people (I mostly mean "white people" here, but it can somewhat be attributed to everyone) about race. Seriously.

Otherwise liberal, well-educated, grounded people who have no trouble sharing their opinion and having dialogues about a number of other issues completely lose their freaking minds once race gets inserted into the equation. People get dangerously defensive out of nowhere (whether or not any actual accusations have been made) and rely on crazy, shot-through-with-holes logic that they would never accept from anybody else about any other topic.

And it's not like these are people who never hear about/deal with race in their lives. Because, whether anybody admits it or not, EVERYBODY deals with race every single day. For some people, it's as the "norm" and so they aren't consciously aware of it - but it still regularly affects them. And yet, it still seems like this brand-new topic every time it comes up. People are consistently crazy and defensive and uncomfortable about it, even if they've had the conversation 30 times before.

And - just like with the Portland rain and drivers - people seem to have so much trouble changing their reactions every time. They stick to the same damn irrational arguments and assumptions, refuse to acknowledge their own flaws time after time after time. And it's scary. And frustrating. And it gives me "race rage" (which is also pretty similar to "road rage" in its seemingly random intensity and where it leads).

And I know I'm not the only one that reacts this way. It's so damn frustrating because it's completely out of our control. Just like with Portlanders driving in the rain, I can see what's going on and how ridiculous it is, but I can't do a damn thing to make that clear to those falling to it. And so, in my "rage," I find myself getting impatient and wanting to do drastic things that generally just make it worse (or are at the very least increasing the danger of the situation).

I want to scream, "What the F--- is wrong with you!? Didn't you notice that it rains (that you're surrounded by race) every damn day!?? Don't you know that your defensive driving (arguing) is just plain ridiculous and makes it all worse!??

So the question is: why? Why do people do this? And what can I really do to alter the situation (in either case)?

I've done a relatively good job of curbing my lean towards violence in these situations, but I'm still not through half my life - so am I really going to be able to deal with it forever without breaking?

Any ideas?