Thursday, August 21, 2008

America's Asia Racism

I wasn't sure whether I should even post this picture. Shocking, isn't it? But it does make the point. Racism against Asians has been a problem for this country in the past, and it continues to be.

We have come a long way. Racism now is rarely overt like the poster above. But in some ways, that makes it even harder to combat - nobody ever admits to being a racist, or making a racist argument. Accusing someone of doing so will usually lead to counter-accusations of political correctness (which is now considered racism's opposite, overcompensating extreme) and it quickly becomes a pissing match. I myself don't much enjoy playing the race card, and I've never done so here before.

Our history of racism against Asians, dating back to the 1800's and continuing through the past century, seems to have been largely forgotten. So few people seem to recognize it these days, or so much as flinch even if they do. That poster up there is an extreme example, but there are still plenty of more subtle ways that people express the same biases today.

I've noticed a lot of it during the Beijing Olympics, both in the official coverage from NBC and around the internet. I touched upon it in my post about the controversy surrounding the age of China's women's gymnastics team, which has had both racist and misogynistic undertones. (The implication being that women around the world need to conform to western standards of height, weight and "curves" to qualify as, well, women.) Whether or not the allegations are actually true is not really important, and I'd love to see Nastia Liukin and the US team with more gold - the point is we're shooting first and asking questions later. There was no legitimate reason for the snap judgment that the media and most Americans made in the absence of real evidence. And bust size does not qualify as evidence.

I was uncomfortable with much of the criticism of the opening ceremonies too - it's ok for white All-American Britney Spears to record her albums with a ProTools-"enhanced" voice and then lip-sync through every concert she's ever put on, but it's a major scandal when a little Chinese girl does it. We look for excuses for our white western stars, but we show Asians no mercy.

Worse, this seems to be accepted practice even among otherwise liberal, open-minded people. This is a non-partisan issue.

Most will say they're not criticizing the Chinese (or more generally Asian) people, only the Chinese government. I might believe that - the Chinese government is pretty evil, after all - if those same people were just as vocal about our own government's abuses and the complicity of many average Americans. We jail reporters here too, along with peaceful protesters; we hold people in prisons indefinitely without due process; we blacklist our own citizens for their religious beliefs; we refuse to denounce torture and in fact most Americans support it. And we keep electing governments who say they'll continue those policies.

Where is this moral high ground that these supposed critics of the Chinese government are operating from? If anything, they should see China as a kindred spirit. (Remember that China has its own terror problem, and it claims all of its oppressive measures are in the name of security just like we do.) It's probably all a smoke screen for what their real problem is.

These signals are not as obvious as cross-burning or noose-hanging, but when you find a double standard like that - or worse, the assumption that western standards are the only "correct" standards by which to judge people and culture - then you've got to at least ask whether racism is at the heart of it.

Now this week, Time Magazine is running an article perpetuating the stereotype about Asians and suicide, under the headline "A Family Suicide Risk in US Asians?" (I can't get my head around that headline, to start with. You tell me what it actually means and who it's actually referring to.) It comes complete with stock image of an appropriately sad looking Asian girl.

But here's the most important part of the article:

His analysis finds that 2.7% of the Asian Americans interviewed reported having attempted suicide at some point during their lives; the figure falls in line with the lifetime prevalence of suicide attempts in the general population: estimated to be anywhere from 1% to 4.6%. Overall, suicide accounts for less than 1% of deaths yearly in the U.S. — there were about 11 suicides per 100,000 people in 2005, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — and the suicide success rate among Asian Americans (as well as Latinos and African Americans) is actually slightly lower than that of white Americans.

So what is the point? Not that Asian Americans are at greater risk of suicide than anybody else, but that when they do attempt suicide, it's often over family stresses. But I wonder why Asian Americans were singled out - why not include other groups in this study? Given that suicide rates are no higher for Asians than for whites, what is the premise for this study in the first place? Again, shoot first - and do it based on stereotypes.

It's kind of like commissioning a study on why black people eat fried chicken. You see what I'm getting at?

I care about this because I'm married to an Asian, and someday I'm going to have a little Asian American guy or girl running around my house who's going to have to learn to live with this assertion that he/she is different and somehow inferior. I worry about my future child's self image and self esteem. My wife has been the victim of racism as well, in both large and small ways - and that's what first tuned me in to it.

A few years ago, she was confronted and almost arrested on the street by an overzealous border patrol agent in Montana - she was a non-white in a white state. The fact that she was taking a short walk around the train station on an extended maintenance stop outside of our Amtrak train, and carrying her New York State-issued driver's license with her, didn't seem to matter. Does my Japanese wife look like an islamic terrorist? Well, I certainly don't think so. This border patrol agent did, though, and was in the process of taking her into custody before some of our fellow (white!) passengers came to her aid and vouched for her. (I had stayed on the train, foolishly assuming that my government would not arrest a Japanese woman simply for being Japanese. What century is this?)

I try not to think about what might have happened if that train had left on schedule, while she was in custody.

That was bad, and kind of a wakeup call for me. Since then, every once in a while I'll catch a comment by somebody that sounds vaguely offensive, but not enough to call them on it. For example, on our trip to Montauk last weekend, we picked a random restaurant to eat dinner at. We were standing around waiting for someone to seat us when a customer actually walked up to us and said "you want to eat here?" She was looking at my wife when she finished the question.

It could have been innocent, or it could have just been unusual for them to see outsiders of any kind. So I didn't say anything, just "yes, why?" (She replied that it was a really good place - whatever that meant - then left.) But my wife was convinced it was a question with an agenda, and she apparently gets stuff like that all the time. Montauk is an almost exclusively white town, as is that entire area. I tried to convince her as I usually do that she was just being paranoid, but it's getting harder for me to even convince myself of that.

In the interests of fairness, I should mention that this scenario plays out in reverse in Asian countries plenty often too, and I've been the victim of racism or xenophobia myself while in Japan. (More often, though, they love Americans.) But two wrongs don't make a right. If we want the moral high ground, then we need to take it. Individually as well as collectively.

Americans have an odd relationship with Asia, and I know there are some people (like me) who love it. But while every Asian country is different and unique, they are all extremely alien to most Americans - and Americans fear what they do not understand. That's probably human nature, or instinct - a primordial response. But all racism is based on that same fear, and it's infuriating when mainstream media outlets like NBC (and the age-obsessed Al Trautwig) and Time Magazine display this subtle racism completely uncritically and without comment, perpetuating stereotypes and asserting western (and usually white) dominance. It's probably subconscious to some degree, but that's not really an excuse - it's their job as journalists to look at things and ask "Why? Why am I writing this article? Why was this study done?" Or "why am I saying something live on national TV with no real evidence to back it up?"

And unfortunately, most Americans still trust the media even when they're not doing their job, and they'll play right along, not even realizing how warped their view of the world really is.


  1. its too frustrating for me to sit and count how many times i've been offended by the nbc coverage of the olympics. I've let it roll off my back so much that to a point that i'm desensitized and blind to it.

    and that article about asians committing suicide...did they run out of material and decide to spin nothing into something? ridiculous.

    sad to say though, i know how your wife feels in sheltered places of mostly non-whites.

  2. Anonymous10:04 AM

    Zomg! Asian suicide rate exactly average!
    *not the most spectacular headline

    I'll admit I clicked that link just to see what she looks like (^_^);

  3. Really it was just a complete non-story, that suicide study.

    Sorry that I had their only pic of the girl, though :)

    I'm sure they just got it from Corbis or Getty.


About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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