In the Spring of 2012, two Duke freshmen running for the positions of Class of 2015 President and Vice President circulated a campaign image that members of the Asian American community at Duke found issue with. These two students posed for their campaign picture smiling in front of two Duke eateries: one holding a piece of matzah (Jewish unleavened bread) in front of the Duke Freeman Center for Jewish Life (known to serve Jewish food); the other, holding chopsticks in front of Panda Express (an on-campus “Chinese Bistro” restaurant that also serves sushi). An overlay on the photo made a quip about the candidates eating preferences for “Latkes and Lo Mein.”
Members of the Asian American community, including leaders of the undergraduate ASA (Asian Students Association) and the AAA (Asian American Alliance) were quick to respond with comments regarding the appropriateness of such imagery. Public criticisms, and personal outreach to the candidates running were made. Fortunately, the candidates retracted their campaign image within the span of hours and issued a public apology in the following day, saying they did not intend to offend any members of either the Jewish or Asian community. The quick and genuine manner in which the candidates responded was greatly appreciated by the Asian American community leaders. However, while the candidates stated their intentions were completely innocuous, discussions of the racial offensiveness of such a campaign continues among those who saw the campaign ad.
Was the campaign “racist?” This was perhaps the most burning question of all— was this just a “light-hearted campaign,” or was it a situation worthy of the big “R” word? Many people have their own working definitions of what is racist and what is not, but according to historic and current academic definitions of racism, no— the campaign was not racist, though it was racially offensive. Since the candidates were directly representing only themselves in a racially stereotyped way (as a Jewish and Asian American), the campaign image was not racially oppressive (racist), more than it was racially self-deprecating. The stereotypical image they perpetuated was only harming their own racial communities—a much different case from the Pilgrims and Indians party hosted by Duke’s chapter of Pi Kappa Phi last fall, in which a primarily white group of students were portraying a racially defined people of color in a stereotypical and degrading way. That was racist.
The problem with this campaign was it fell too easily into historically stereotypical narratives that are racially oppressive and “muticulturally comforting.” In America’s past, white supremacists have used political cartoons of Jews with facial hair and large noses, minstrel shows, and Chinese language mocking as a way to put down people of color strictly on a racial basis. These examples are just a small part of a larger mainstream American culture of racialized imagery, stereotypes, and narratives that oppress people of color— historically initiated by elite white men, and primarily benefiting elite white men. When people of color refuse to deny these depictions of themselves, or aid and further these stereotypical narratives, it becomes racially offensive due to the universality of race. While these candidates probably did not intend to make a stereotyped claim on behalf of their races, the problem with the world is intentions don’t carry over into reality. Because race is such a unifying characteristic, this Jewish and Asian Americans’ depictions of only themselves inevitably reflected upon the members of their collective racial communities.
In other words, the campaign ad was racially offensive because it spread a message that stereotypical (un-complex) views of Jewish and Asian people are okay, because they are true and supported by actual Jewish and Asian Americans.
This is a very dangerous slope to play on. As smiling candidates looking for some easy votes, pandering to a very white-racial-framed way of understanding people of color as simply different “flavors” downplays the real significance of race—that as racial minorities in America, people of color have been subjected to centuries of oppressive history that primarily benefits white males. Instead of playing off the benefits that being a person of color may give you, such as a unique perspective into how power and privilege works, these candidates unintentionally played to a racially stereotypical mainstream tune, suggesting that all being a racial minority “really is” is enjoying different kinds of food and having some “really interesting (commoditized, un-American, and non-progressive)” culture.
Ultimately, the quick response of the candidates running to the ASA’s political judgement showed open-mindedness and political competence. Following the retraction, the freshmen resourcefully requested a BSA board member to represent them in a summit between the two cultural groups. As a cultural group dedicated to educating Duke about its Asian/Asian-American population and calling out racial insensitivities, the ASA was very pleased in the manner in which these candidates responded. While this in no way excuses their racially offensiveness of their initial campaign image, the ASA believes this episode shows hope for the future of Asian American depiction on campus.
I keep having this conversation with people:
There is no such thing as sexism against men. There is no such thing as racism against white people. Racism, sexism, and classism are INSTITUTIONAL and SYSTEMATIC forms of discrimination on the basis of race, gender and class. People of color, women, and the lower class do not have the power to institutionally and systematically discriminate against you. If you are slighted, I promise you, 100%, that it is not because you are a white male.
That being said, we had an interesting discussion in my feminist theory class today about whether sexism against men was possible. One of my classmates argued that sexism is based on gender stereotypes, and there are indeed certain expectations of masculinity that we impose on men, and these can be just as restricting as those imposed on women. We expect them to be macho, for once, and, as my professor put it, we have this sense that they are “rapacious capitalist pigs”.
Well, okay, I agree and disagree. When men behave in rapacious capitalist ways, having sex left and right and drinking everything you put in front of them, the adage is that “boys will be boys.” This is what people say when they hear about sexual assaults at college or whatever. As Maggie Thatcher said, “Boys will be boys, and girls should say no.” Poor behavior on men’s parts are often excused and even expected. It’s when you DON’T behave like a rapacious capitalist pig that men seem to expect a prize or something. That’s why you have the whole “nice guy” syndrome, where guys think that, just because they’re not abusive and they’ve ostensibly treated a woman like a fellow human being, they deserve sexual compensation. Or they think that being decent to women is something we punish with “the friend zone.” I saw this wonderful image of Morpheus in his glasses going, “What if I told you women are not machines that, when you put kindness coins in, sex comes out?” The point is, men justify and excuse their bad behavior, and feel entitled to women’s bodies.
So what about men who aren’t macho? What about gay men, or simply men who are metrosexual or effeminate? I’d argue that when men are penalized for behaving too much like women, this is not sexism against men: this is sexism against women. If you think about the worst things that you can call a guy, or even little boys as they’re growing up, they are all things like, “Don’t be a pussy, don’t be a sissy, don’t be a little girl.” The worst insult to a man is being likened to a woman. Now who does that actually insult, huh? I defend your right to be emotional, enjoy chick flicks, wear makeup, and listen to Glee. I reject your notion that these are traits that need defending in the first place, even if you simultaneously have a penis.
Just because there is no sexism against men does not mean women can not be sexist. They certainly can be sexist, just not against men. Until women own more than 1% of the world’s property, we can’t be sexist against men. Unfortunately, with things like slut shaming and aligning themselves as ‘bros’, women can effectively be sexist against other women. Whenever a woman tries to set herself apart from “most women” for being less emotional, less preoccupied with clothing/gossip/Adele, being physically stronger or smarter, more virginal or more sexually active, she is degrading the rest of her sex. She is saying, “Look at me, I’m not like other girls, I pride myself on being things that my gender is not.” She is Taylor Swift being a special snowflake, going, “She wears short skirts, I wear t-shirts, she’s cheer captain, and I’m on the bleachers…and she’s a slut so you belong with me.” By taking a positive trait about herself and turning it into a point of difference, rather than something that all women can be, she is reinforcing sexist stereotypes like the worst of men.
The people I was having this conversation with made the argument that there are certain radical feminists who hate men and “think penises are the devil.” I’m 100% sure that they are not as numerous, not as loud, nor taken as seriously as men who hate women, who rape or joke about rape, demand that we stay in the kitchen, and order us to make sandwiches. I am 100% sure that if you were to post a man-hating image on the internet, you would get an overwhelmingly negative response and get called a “feminazi” and all sorts of other things, but if you were to post a woman-hating image on the internet — what’s that? People post women hating images all the time? And people think they’re funny and they get thousands of likes?
So this is the disadvantage of being a man. Even if you have never discriminated against a woman in your life, even if you have never once said anything misogynistic and you have only ever been respectful, you must recognize that this discrimination exists and you are a part of it. You have privilege. You don’t need to be afraid when you walk home alone at night. You don’t need to worry about getting raped when you go out in attractive clothing. When you make a mistake, you don’t need to worry that it might reflect badly on your entire sex. You don’t feel violated when people look and make comments at your body.
You have privilege.
And in all sincerity, I understand how hard that must be. You never asked for privilege, you were just born with it. It’s not your fault. You feel guilty, you do. You’d rather be a victim than an oppressor. You’d rather be David than Goliath. But short of getting a sex change, there’s nothing you can do about it, and you just have to go about the rest of your life with the knowledge that there are certain places you can go, certain things you can do and say, certain advantages you can expect, all because of that lovely organ dangling between your legs. How terrible is that?
But don’t worry, don’t give up yet. Did you know that, as a man, you can be a feminist too? That feminism isn’t some sort of occult club where we do vagina checks before we let you in? Did you know all it takes to be a feminist, is to want equality for all people, regardless of what genitalia they have? It’s that easy. All you have to do is resist your privilege, to stand up against ignorance when you see it, and to never perpetuate the inequalities that exist. You have to be constantly vigilant, always conscientious of the effect you have on people, and it will be exhausting. And sometimes you will mess up. You’ll laugh at that off-color joke, you’ll stare at that woman who didn’t asked to be stared at, you’ll get promoted over a woman who was just as competent. But it’s okay! Yes, you are responsible, but you didn’t create society the way it is. All you have to do is pick yourself up again, maybe let a woman know how much you appreciate and respect her strength and dignity, and move on.
And never complain about sexism against men, ever.
I must preface this piece admitting that I have tried to write it five times. I had pages of disjointed points and incoherent blurbs, throwing out sociological phrases about hegemony and problematic racial terminology. All the writing and re-writing distracted me from the real question, are Asian Americans fully respected and accepted citizens in the United States? If that were the case then we wouldn’t be so publicly humiliated in recent years by the likes of Rosie O’Donnell, Rush Limbaugh, and Alexandra Wallace (UCLA student made famous on YouTube) as they mocked Asian language just as many non-Asian children are doing on school playgrounds across the nation. If we are seen as racial others in a white supremacist society, then the next question is, what are we going to do about it?
Sometimes I feel like I have a great burden on my shoulders. I have actually had a friend tell me that the weight of all Asian Americans rests upon them. Why? It’s because I’m critical of the racial status quo. I speak about justice. Some of us may be comfortable with middle class crumbs and seemingly “positive” stereotypes, but I’d rather have freedom: freedom from racist taunting, freedom from demeaning media constructions, and freedom to define my identity without assumptions about my race, gender, sexuality, mind, body, and spirit. These notions make me an outlier. I confront people to their faces. I. Don’t. Take. Any. Shit. After writing my first book, The Myth of the Model Minority: Asian Americans Facing Racism, I have given countless numbers of talks on the subject. What I find, every time, is that there are Asian Americans in the audience that relate. They come up to me after the talk, thanking me for telling their stories and standing up for them.
As dedicated as I am to the cause, I cannot do this ALONE. It’s overwhelming. I need back up and I’m asking you to help. There are many ways you could help me. At the very personal level, in your own life, you control your own actions and your own fate. You can stand up for yourself. This is not necessarily a call for you to be a new civil rights leader, to start a movement. I am urging you to take care of yourself, honor yourself as an individual by learning to fight, learning to stand up for yourself, to be able to demand respect from others when they do not treat you with dignity. The very first step is deconstructing the external messages about who you are supposed to be based on your socio-historically constructed race, gender, and sexuality. We are not what they say we are. We are who we want to be. By decolonizing your mind, you can begin to live free.
After recognizing racist, sexist, and homophobic constructions, you can take the next step, finding your voice. As an Asian American I have been publicly ridiculed a number of times and in my rage have found myself speechless and paralyzed. I have overcome the fear and now have allowed myself to speak, to yell, and to scream. I know that no one else is going to do it for me. Now it’s your turn.
Rosalind S. Chou In Rosalind’s next book Asian American Sexual Politics she dedicates an entire chapter on resistance and details a number of specific strategies for individuals. Rosalind was a keynote speaker at 2012’s annual ECAASU conference, and is currently working on her second book, which focuses on Asian American sexuality.
In the Fall of 2011, Duke University’s chapter of Pi Kappa Phi threw a party that gained campus-wide fame as a Chronicle guest column written by undergraduate sophomore Nicole Daniels expressed distaste with their party theme. Called “Pilgrims and Indians,” the party was advertised in the usual fashion by “witty” email invitation:
“In 1621 some crazy pilgrims had a pretty brutal harvest. Word on the street was they didn’t have enough food for half the bros in Plymouth. Then some hot natives came along with some extra food.… On Saturday, the brothers of Pi Kappa Phi will be honoring that party spirit. There will be a cornucopia of treats in our modern-day teepee. Tap into your inner pocahotness, wear a few feathers and party like you don’t care if you survive the winter.”
The posting of Daniels’ article on The Chronicle’s website ignited a fury of responses in the days following its posting, including mention by widely followed blogs. In the following week, Pi Kapp issued an official apology and co-hosted an event with the Center for Multicultural Affairs to harbor discussion. Pi Kapp’s failure to provide a non-offensive venue for (alcoholic) social interaction is not the first, nor will it be the last of its kind. However, in the wake of one of many such insensitivities, some dialogue has been sparked.
Though a good proportion of Duke seems to agree that “hot natives” and “pocahotness” is an inappropriate theme for a Duke affiliated party, there are more who would say (at least online) that such a progressive stance is unreasonable and childish. What’s more, some commentators have berated others on their “opportunistic sensitivity,” claiming that “it’s stupid that it’s almost hip to be offended.” As if being sensitive to racial oppression is a fad that people take up. What is most “stupid” to me is the backlash to sensitivity! I disagree with you, anonymous commentator, you are wrong—the only thing stupid (ignorant) is that it’s almost hip to NOT be offended. As if telling people to grow up and forget the years of (ongoing) racial oppression will make them feel any better. But then again, I guess if everyone did forget about the crimes of elite whites—the racial genocide the Indians faced, the centuries of physical and economic rape the Blacks faced, the shameful deception that stripped Asians and Latinos of years of labor—then things would be okay, right?
Isn’t that what we, as the elite minority—the upper and middle class of color—are supposed to do? That’s the deal right? You let us, a small proportion of our respective colors into your historically white dominated bastions of “education” under the guise of equality and diversity, and in turn we will return to the outside world filled to the brim and overflowing with stories of your feigned meritocracy and faith in a corrupted system. Sure, we get a few crumbs—the economic stability and the friends you meet here are genuine, but at what cost? In my research I’ve come across Asian women who can’t enter their own dorm common rooms without student athletes heckling them, dripping in undeserved empowerment and stinking of exoticized fantasies: “Oh little Asian girl, I’d love to bang you.” Asian men, their manhoods castrated by the thousand culling movies and images they’ve seen since birth, understandably too bitter and too scared to venture far from the comforts that were left them. Call it what you will, an isolated incident—one bad apple among the many—but denying that these episodes may be the indication of some broader and deeper underlying problems is not maturity, it is ignorance.
I shouldn’t have to hear about “jumping on the bandwagon of offense” from you—hardly any of the undergraduates at Duke have faced a preponderance of oppression—being at one of the top ten colleges in the United States alone makes you one of the luckiest people in the nation, let alone the world. Your inability to give a damn about what white frat boys are doing isn’t even a shortcoming on your part, so much as it is an indication of your privilege to live life without facing much oppression yourself—you probably have educated and (relatively) wealthy parents and no friends or acquaintances who are progressively minded enough to challenge your elitist and condescending views. True, it’s not your fault the white founders of this nation slaughtered and shackled the original inhibitors of this land. We’re not asking you to give the American Indians and the Latinos back their land, return to the Blacks and Asians the fruits of their labor, but the least you can damn well do is acknowledge it. I understand denying the hideous history of depravity and debauchery suffered by my ancestors at the hands of yours is easy—it’s what we’ve all been raised to do. But just because you can’t see it (or maybe you do and just ignore it) doesn’t mean it’s insignificant. Telling others who were once silent to ignore the crimes of white supremacy so you can have your fun is more than stupid, it’s childish. You obviously understand oppression way more than the rest of us. So why don’t you “get off your high horse” and “grow up a little?” We’ll talk when you get on my level.
No Justice, No Peace.
 If you don’t understand these references, please take a race class, or at least read the Wikipedia articles on each of these racial minorities.
“People become empowered when they think and speak for themselves” – Patricia Hill Collins, author of Black Feminist Thought I have a confession to make.
I am obsessed with Korean pop (K-pop) right now. From gimbap to Boys Over Flowers, I as a Chinese American woman blame my loving extended Korean family, my Asian Indian roommates who kept rehearsing dance moves to DBSK’s Mirotic, and my former Nigerian American roommate who shared my predilection for appreciating the Asian male (ahem) physique.
Lately the addiction has grown to almost the point of K-poptervention. Yesterday at the Duke East Asia Nexus kick-off for their very well written magazine I found myself publicly bobbing my head and breaking out some more embarrassing unspeakable dance moves in my chair when Brown Eyed Girls’ “Abracadabra” came on. At this very moment I am kickin’ it in my oversized egg chair to Super Junior’s “Sorry Sorry” and repressing the urge to get up and dance.
But you must understand as a sociology major in SOC 191S Racing Sex and Sexing Race I have to wonder at the hegemony (jazz hands) that permeates these video. Hegemony, you know that political, economic, social sphere of influence constructed by the dominant class that pervades your everyday life and you just accept as natural? Particularly I’m talking about that HEGEMONIC MASCULINITY that seems an inescapable reality of K-pop videos.
Take the incredibly catchy Wonder Girls’ “So Hot”; which isn’t even the worst of them. When I stop dancing and watch the video, the framing of women is predictable and misogynistic; the Wonder Girls are literally in a present box. She fights off boys on her bicycle, stares at a ridiculously large diamond ring, and dresses up as a cheerleader. The lyrics celebrate the shallow and externally praised, “I’m so hot /I’m so fine / I’m so cool /I’m so so so hot hot”… All the boys be loving me /all the girls be hatin’ me/ they will never stop/ ‘Cause they know I’m so hot hot.” Although it is very important for young women to explore their self and feel good about themselves and their body Wonder Girls’ video puts value on not self-worth but appraised worth from male suitors. If I found my brainy beautiful seven year old sister singing “So Hot” my heart would break; yet these are the messages that seven year olds in Korea are singing in class and at the D.I.S.C.O.
Watching K-Pop makes me want to be super cute, tiny, and adorable and think about that super cute boy in 12th period high school mathematics and I have to check myself. Now, there is not anything inherently about contemplating the opposite sex, but K-pop puts essential value on boys, thin body image, white skin, and sexy-ing it up. Lee Hyori I’m talking to you, ma’am. I mean what part of dancing in your underwear and a bustier while saying “Okay” is empowering? Or is it all about getting the guy in the last frame? Okay….so why am I watching these again besides their bubblegum rhythm?
I keep watching in part because there is no Asian American female star I can dance to and although the Korean popstar is dancing in her underwear there is something important to be said for existing in the public eye. As a woman who for years has consumed images of Britney Spears dance around in latex suits and much less these images of Wonder Girls’ female sexuality seem relatively mild. I cannot name one Asian American musician in the modern mainstream the way Britney Spears is. Hill-Collins says the female of color has to operate within frames that other her. For the Asian female subservience/agreeability and exoticism are often Hollywood media images I have to consume (cough, cough Brenda Song Social Network). It’s conflicting imagery for me. I can be all arcane sociological jargon or I can cut to the chase. I would rather consume K-pop with its disturbing representation of female cuteness and shallow imagery than be non-existent on the American pop scene or subject to Hollywood portrayals of the Asian female giving fellatio to the white male she just met in a bathroom stall because he’s a potential billionaire, that does not mean as I watch k-pop I am an unquestioning critic.
K-pop and Hollywood media, I’m so sorry but you better check yourself.