Tag Archives: Asian American

Cul-Film-0714-Impact-NEW

Asian Americans: The New White?

Asian Americans are held up as the great success story, on the fast track to assimilation. But this has put us at the center of the debate about fairness in this country, raising the question: Are we becoming white?

story by Eugene Yi
photo illustration by SUEJEAN AHN
photo by MIKE LEE

In 1922, Takao Ozawa, a Japanese man who had lived in the U.S. for decades, sued the federal government to be considered white. His application for citizenship had been rejected, as naturalization was only offered to “free white persons,” “aliens of African nativity” and “persons of African descent.” In his case, Ozawa mentioned the similarities in skin tone between his and a white person’s, as well as his loyalty. He wrote, “In name, Benedict Arnold was an American, but at heart he was a traitor. In name, I am not an American, but at heart I am a true American.”

Ozawa’s case wound up before the Supreme Court, which did not, in the end, think Ozawa could be considered white. The result must not have been a surprise, coming as it did during the age of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the yellow peril and Yellow Peril, an influential 1911 book which argued that, in fulfillment of the Book of Revelations, Jesus Christ would descend from heaven to protect the “Occident” against marauding hordes of Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Korean people.

Ninety-two years later, the boundaries of whiteness appear to have grown more generous. A few months ago, the Washington Post ran an op-ed called “How the Asians Became White.” UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh opined on coverage of the diversity numbers of the employees at Google. The New York Times had earlier written that Silicon Valley remained a “white man’s world.” But, Volokh noted, while there is a lack of black and Latino employees, Google was actually less white than the American workforce as a whole, and far more Asian, with about a third of the employees of Asian descent. Volokh sagely wrote that he’d been observing that type of oversight for some time, and quoted himself from something he’d written prior on the topic. This one, from 1998: “To some extent, this sort of mistake is funny and even a bit heartwarming. The racial divisions between white and Asian, once so stark and to many almost unbridgeable, are quickly fading away.”

To have one’s ethnicity, one’s race, stripped away is nothing short of a provocation, even if it is “heartwarming.” “So what?” one might think. It’s the kind of provocation one should expect on the Internet, which runs on cats and outrage. And the “Asians becoming white” headline is nothing new. Coming from the other side of the political spectrum, ethnic studies scholar Scott Kurashige wrote in 1992 that Asian Americans were like Casper the Friendly Ghost: seen as either white or invisible. Other left-leaning columnists have made similar observations.

CS-Minority-0714-1harvardScreenshot of a website set up by the Project on Fair Representation, which seeks testimonials from people who think they were rejected by a school over race. 

So apparently, Asian Americans are basically white, or at least “honorary whites,” next in line to “become” white, a model for other minorities to follow. A comparison to European ethnic groups is often made, usually the Jews. It is, on the face of it, not an unconvincing argument. Asian Americans are immigrants also, stereotyped for having great success in this country. So great is the desire to succeed that Asian Americans are supposed to embody every stereotype of assimilation: educational attainment, loss of foreign language, intermarriage, what have you. For that, Asian Americans are noticeably overrepresented in higher education and in technological and scientific fields.

Thanks to people like Volokh, the occasional overrepresentation of Asian Americans has been cast as a question about the basic fairness of this country. It’s rare for Asian Americans to be at the center of an issue of such import; we are still often invisible, after all. But whiteness has so many connotations that it’s difficult not to be disquieted by this type of talk. More than just a political question, at its root, it is a more personal matter, one that touches on the very nature of being Asian American itself.

* * *

We all knew what the acronyms meant. Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1980s and ’90s, I heard it plenty. UCLA: University of Caucasians Lost among Asians. Or U C Lots of Asians. UCI: University of Chinese Immigrants, or University of Civics and Integras (To the millennials, those were popular with the rice-rocket set back then). A ton of Asians went to UCs, and multiple acronyms existed, which speaks to both how obvious this phenomenon was, and to the endless creativity of procrastinating students.

When my high school class started hearing back from colleges, one of my Latino classmates received acceptances from a few schools that I had not gotten into. His application essay had been a gritty account of growing up in a tough part of town, errant bullets embedded in the drywall in his childhood bedroom. Mine was an existential deconstruction of Alphaville’s 1984 new wave hit “Forever Young,” a 500-word cri de coeur set to sighing synths. Though one might be tempted to pin his better fortunes on his race, I think the essays probably say it all.

I remember we all compared admissions letters, and shared in the realization that it would be a different letter—the financial aid package—that would determine where we’d end up. The aforementioned classmate mentioned how much money he’d received in financial aid, and boasted that he could lend us some. In a fit of adolescent pique, I blurted that he shouldn’t be proud of the fact that his parents hadn’t worked as hard as mine had.

PROP 209 PROTESTAP Photo/FRANK WIESE
A file photo from Oct. 23, 1996, when UCLA students, surrounded by Los Angeles Police officers, staged a sit-in in West Los Angeles, during a protest against then-ballot Proposition 209, which ended many aspects of affirmative action in California. 

It was a brutish outburst, a dumb thing for a kid to say. I didn’t know anything about his family or their story. I certainly didn’t know anything about affirmative action. And I cringe at the memory now, because I am dismayed that it sounded so much like a talking point for anti-affirmative action activists. They argue that success is being penalized, and Asian Americans are proof of the need to do away with the consideration of race. Some cite studies remarking on the difference in average SAT scores between the races, or talk about suspiciously consistent percentages of Asian Americans in Ivy League student bodies. One recent example is a set of websites seeking testimonials of people who believe they have been rejected from a school because of their race. Set up by the Project on Fair Representation (essentially a one-man operation helmed by Edward Blum, a former investment banker and fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute), the goal is to gather enough potential plaintiffs to challenge universities that use applicants’ race and ethnicity as admissions criteria. Many of the pictures used by the websites, despite denials from Blum, feature Asian or Asian-looking people. Smelling a rat, Julianne Hing, who wrote about the effort for the progressive news website Colorlines, pointedly asked, “How do you know when you’re a pawn in someone else’s race war?”

All of this pits Asian Americans against underrepresented minorities, and is a continuation of the history of weaponizing the model minority myth. Sociologist William Petersen coined the expression “model minority” in a story he wrote in 1966 for the New York Times Magazine about the success of Japanese Americans. Indeed, it was called “Success Story, Japanese American Style.” But he didn’t evince an obvious agenda, and approached the topic with the mannered caution of a trained academic. He goes through the litany of crimes committed against Japanese Americans: discrimination, suspicion, internment, deprivation of basic rights. He allows himself to drop his objectivity only when marveling at their success, at how far they had come, “by their own almost totally unaided effort.” Petersen contrasted the Japanese American experience with that of other groups, including, interestingly, the Chinese, whom he did not see as being successful.

Kurashige, the ethnic studies scholar, wrote about the ways that the African American and Japanese American communities interacted in Los Angeles following World War II in his book, The Shifting Grounds of Race (2008). Japanese Americans returned to L.A. after the internment, and initially struggled to get back on their feet. Alliances formed between the Japanese American and African American communities to fight for common goals. But as Japanese Americans’ lot improved, tension between the two communities emerged, he argued.

“The ideological characterization of Japanese Americans as a ‘model minority’ to be integrated served to stigmatize the others as ‘problem minorities’ to be contained,” he wrote.

Criticisms of the model minority myth generally mention the widely divergent outcomes for different groups of Asians. While some groups are doing well, others lag behind, with educational outcomes and household incomes at the bottom end of the spectrum. Much academic work has been done adding needed nuance, yet the impression still exists. Sociologist Nadia Kim took her stab at trying to complicate the picture in her drily titled 2007 paper “Critical Thoughts on Asian American Assimilation in the Whitening Literature.” The paper reads like the academic equivalent of a diss track. Asian Americans, she wrote, “do not desire a white identity.” A sense of mission is readily apparent, and her language is often accusatory, full of italics and verve.

CS-Minority-0714-3saynosca5AP Photo/FRANK WIESE
Asian Americans protest a Senate Constitutional Amendment in California that would have asked voters to consider eliminating California Proposition 209’s affirmative action ban.

Regarding the 1965 law that opened up the country to immigration from Asia, and its policy of favoritism for educated professionals, she wrote it had been enacted “as if to engineer a model minority.”

Regarding intermarrying: “[C]ontrary to popular wisdom, the second largest proportion of marriages is not Asian-white couplings but interethnic marriages, that is, marriages between different Asian ethnic groups.”

Regarding financial success: Asian American poverty is at “a rate considerably higher than for white Americans.” And individual income lags behind comparable whites.

And regarding the idea “that European immigrants were once not white but later became white. Such a claim has not been conclusively supported by historians themselves.” Their whiteness was never questioned, she argues, citing a study showing that Italian Americans, unlike Takao Ozawa, were never denied citizenship. Additionally, Kim brought up the history of European ethnic groups shoring up their whiteness by literally attacking African Americans. More recent history provides troubling parallels. The tensions between Korean Americans and African Americans in the leadup to the L.A. riots in 1992 may not have been about shoring up whiteness, but it certainly created tension between Korean Americans and African Americans, adding another example to an established pattern. Proximity to whiteness is often affirmed by distance from blackness.

* * *

Affirmative action again stirred controversy in California earlier this year. I watched with great interest. Usually, it’s the white conservatives using Asian Americans to make an argument against the policy. This time, it was Asian Americans making the argument themselves.

A bill, known as Senate Constitutional Amendment 5, would have put the issue of race in college admissions back in front of the voters. The use of race has been illegal since 1998. After the ban of the use of race went into effect, admissions rates for black, Latino and Native American students dropped precipitously across the University of California system. White and Asian American rates remained largely unchanged. Student enrollment for fall 2013 in the UC system showed Asian Americans made up 40 percent of the undergraduate population, a massive overrepresentation for a group that makes up about 14 percent of the state’s population. Depending on one’ s political persuasion, one could see this as either cause to unite to increase diversity and opportunities for underrepresented minorities, or, just rewards for hard work, something to defend. It was a classic wedge issue.

An ad hoc group of mostly first-generation Chinese and South Asian Americans waged a fierce online campaign against SCA 5, full of hyperbolic language and rumors about the bill. One op-ed on the website Siliconindia called it “The Most Racist Bill in the History of California.” SCA 5 became “Skin Color Amendment 5” in other tellings. Crude pics repurposed the “I Have a Dream” speech and the image of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to have him make the case against affirmative action from beyond the grave.

Polling data generally shows that Asian Americans strongly favor affirmative action. This had put Asian Americans in alliance with other communities of color. But in this case, these new activists’ voices were louder, and it was enough to compel several Asian American state lawmakers to back away from what they initially thought was an uncontroversial bill. Asian American Republicans sought to capitalize on the split, announcing their opposition to affirmative action.

GALICH COYNEAP Photo/MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ
Conservative students at the University of California at Berkeley staged this “protest” of affirmative action on Feb. 26, 2003, holding a bake sale with treats priced according to the buyer’s ethnicity, gender and social status. 

I’d always wondered if or when this particular shoe would drop. Amy Chua recently made herself a celebrity as the Tiger Mom, raising model minority cubs. But she’s not stumping for education reform, or denying pee breaks in public schools to keep kids on task, or whatever. But with the protesters in California, a new reality seems to have emerged: There are Asian Americans who are willing to take the model minority myth, and march in the metaphorical streets. And if that means scuttling political orthodoxy and solidarity with other communities of color, so be it.

Instructive parallels exist in other communities. Historian Sonia Song-Ha Lee, of Washington University, wrote about the activist history of New York’s Puerto Rican community in her book, Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement. African Americans and Puerto Ricans activists often fought alongside each other until the ’70s, when the coalition started to fray. Several factors contributed to an eventual split, including the growing political influence of Puerto Ricans who had entered the middle class. Fissures started to form along class lines, according to Lee.
“The middle class was able to dominate the conversation by the ’70s. A lot of these middle-class Puerto Ricans started to prioritize job security, and started to choose narrow political goals, versus broader visions of rebuilding a new society,” she said. Some middle-class Puerto Ricans even trotted out a familiar argument: that they shared a common path with earlier waves of European immigrants, overcoming prejudice to reach an attainable American dream through bootstrapping alone. But at that point, entry into the middle class had proven elusive for the overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans.
There are echoes of this line of thinking when Asian Americans take up the argument for merit in education. For some, status in the middle class is a birthright rather than an aspiration. Much of the SCA 5 activity was focused in the ethnic suburbs around Silicon Valley and Los Angeles, well-off parts of town with more recent immigrants from China and India who might be less interested in broader messages of solidarity. This, despite the fact that the majority of Asian Americans still support affirmative action, and that, importantly, some Asian American groups are lagging far behind others.

“I think for better or worse what we were seeing in the SCA 5 battle is … Asian Americans expressing a greater sense of agency for their own purposes, which are moving in contradictory political directions,” said Kurashige. “Therefore, we ought to expect not a simple shift in any specific direction, but some heated debates and struggles to define Asian American politics in the 21st century.”Outside of education and the tech industry, though, the issue is not as contentious, according to Vincent Pan, of the advocacy group Chinese for Affirmative Action. “Nearly all Asian Americans agree with affirmative action in employment hiring and promotion, public contracting, judicial, media and political representation—and so we can appreciate the need and benefit for affirmative action,” Pan said. “It is highly inconsistent and detrimental to abandon it with respect to higher education admissions.”

* * *

One hundred years ago, it would’ve been difficult to imagine Asian Americans having this place in the racial hierarchy to even prompt such conversations. For most of the history of Asian Americans in the U.S., violence and xenophobia ruled. The biggest mass lynching in American history happened in Los Angeles’ Chinatown in 1871, where anywhere from 15 to 21 Chinese people were killed, depending on the account. Anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II led to the internment of more than 100,000 people, mostly American citizens. In 1982, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, was murdered during another rising tide of anti-Japanese hysteria. More recently, South Asians have been targeted and murdered following the 9/11 attacks.

“History tells us that anti-Asian discrimination won’t go away so quickly. Just because right now, we find ourselves in a semi-white position, it doesn’t mean we’ll be here forever,” said Lee, the historian. “We still hold a fairly precarious position.”

It seems anytime an Asian country becomes the enemy, Asian Americans become the target. Being an “other” in America is never far from having violent consequences. How many of us second-generation Asian Americans have held our breaths and waited for potential fall-out with every ominous “China Rising” headline or when it’s revealed that the perpetrator in some heinous crime in the U.S. is Asian? Or, for that matter, recent mass shootings that seem to be partially inspired by some very twisted neuroses rooted in being Asian?

LEEAP Photo/PAUL SANCYA
Amy Lee places flowers at the gravestone of her nephew, Vincent Chin, at a 20th anniversary memorial at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Detroit on June 23, 2002. Chin, a Chinese American, was beaten to death with a baseball bat by two unemployed autoworkers who mistook him for Japanese. 

This push-and-pull at the core of Asian American life—white/not-white, and foreigner/native—seems to have cycled over the course of American history. No matter how close to white Asian Americans might become, this perpetual foreigner status remained. For most Asians in America, after all, the experience of other-ness is seared into us. When you walk into a room, you look around and count the Asian people. It’s a defining experience for people of color in this country. And it helps explain some of the curious political behavior of Asian Americans.

Generally, one of the best indicators for political allegiance is income. By that metric, Asian Americans should be pretty Republican. But instead, Asian Americans have shown the greatest shift to the Democratic Party of any group in the last 20 years. More than three-quarters of Asian Americans voted for Obama in the last election.

“Asian American political behavior is counter to what traditional political science research would predict,” said political science professor Cecilia Hyunjung Mo, in an email interview. “Further, wealthier Asian Americans are not any more likely to vote Republican than poorer Asian Americans.” She and her colleagues conducted a series of experiments where two groups of Asian Americans were asked about their political allegiances. One group, though, was primed with what they called “racial microaggressions,” where a white lab assistant would say something all too familiar to any Asian American: “You speak good English.” “Where were you born?”

Asian Americans who had been primed with a microaggression allied themselves significantly more strongly with the Democratic Party, 87 percent to 76 percent. The results seem to indicate that not only are Asian Americans aware they are still considered to outsiders, but that one of the two political parties is perceived not to welcome outsiders. Which, incidentally, is the party most associated with xenophobia, exclusivity and a certain strain of American whiteness.

* * *

I recently attended a panel where one of the panelists, an Asian American businessman who’d worked for some of the largest firms in the country, said that if one believed in a bamboo ceiling—a limit to how far an Asian American could rise—then one must believe in the existence of a “short” ceiling, an “ugly” ceiling, a “fat” ceiling. Being Asian is, according to this telling, an overcomeable condition—nothing that a diet or some platform shoes couldn’t help with.

Many would respond by pointing to the underrepresentation of Asian Americans in the upper echelons of corporate America. But the businessman’s words make it seem as if it’s just a matter of time. As Asians, as perpetual foreigners, as “others,” we might still do our little headcounts when we walk into a room. But the rooms, for some, are getting fancier.

The criticisms of the model minority myth are myriad, and valid. But what truth there is to it must be reckoned with. If whiteness can be defined, at least partly, as the lack of impediments to success, then it might be hard not to find this aspect of whiteness readily present in the Asian American community.

CS-Minority-0714-4Time1CS-Minority-0714-4Time2
Two different Time covers that are essentially making the model minority argument—(left) the infamous 1987 “whiz kids” cover, and (right) the 2011 “tiger mom” cover. 

There is another aspect to this lack of impediment, though, one that has nothing to do with whiteness. The non-European wave of immigration that started in 1965 scrambled America’s racial logic, forcing new lines to be drawn beyond the old black/white and foreigner/native. We live in a country that’s, really, just starting to contend with the second generation of this wave of immigrants. Even though Asian Americans make up only 4 percent of the population, there are times when I marvel at how accustomed I’ve become to seeing faces that look like mine. Any reader of this publication is familiar with the ways Korean Americans are contributing to popular culture and mainstream society. There are moments when I just scratch my head in amazement, wondering, “What aren’t we doing?” There are still things to fight for, of course. Asian American men are still emasculated, as evidenced by any of the seemingly annual studies on how poorly they do in online dating. In popular media, there’ s still more Mr. Chow from the Hangover movies, than Glenn Rhee from The Walking Dead. Asian women continue to be exoticized. The consequences of “otherness” will linger, publicly through discrimination, hate crime, violence and privately, in undiagnosed ways.

There is a real phenomenon at work: the normalizing of people of color. But far from making the country post-racial, it seems to have grown hyper-racial. Two conversations are happening simultaneously: both whether, and how, race matters. The success of a person of color means either the proclamation that race doesn’t matter in American life, or the argument that one is ignoring the myriad ways it still does.

There is a reading of this phenomenon that could see this period as birth pangs of some society that is closer to some inclusive ideal. But as this post-’65 generation ages and assimilates, there is a different aspect of whiteness that comes to mind: whiteness as lacking a culture. As being “merely” American. The fear is that something essential is being lost, a sense of self and identity that goes beyond advice on Korean restaurants and maybe a word or two in the native language. The single largest ethnic group in America is from Germany. There once were literally hundreds of German-language newspapers circulating in the U.S. Now, there are barely any, and few really even think of Germans as anything but part of the white spectrum.

But different facets of whiteness don’t just fall like dominoes. Whiteness is an ill-defined complex of traits and tendencies. And it’s an actual field of study, with many universities offering classes in whiteness studies. Oft-quoted is W.E.B DuBois, the first African American to earn a Ph.D., from Harvard, and one of the foremost minds on race relations in the era just after slavery. He wrote, “The discovery of a personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing—a nineteenth and twentieth century matter, indeed.” The author James Baldwin, another masterful commenter on race in America, wrote in his essay “On Being White … And Other Lies,” “No one was white before he/she came to America.”

Evelyn Yoshimura, the community organizing director at the Little Tokyo Service Center, a nonprofit in L.A., told me a story once about Harry Kitano, an old lion of Asian American studies at UCLA. He used to rail that Japanese Americans were not going to be around for long. Because of their economic success, because of their assimilation, because of their rate of intermarriage, they would just be gone, integrated into the white mainstream.

At first, she said, that seemed to be the case. Japanese Americans intermarried at high rates, assimilated quickly and left Little Tokyos and Japantowns for the suburbs. Community organizations limped along, hosting their events for a dwindling number of people.

Then, some hapa kids started showing up at the annual 3-on-3 basketball tournament. Then more. Enough so that the tournament started to grow. Soon, other programs grew as well. And now, the community’s leadership programs, training sessions and their basketball leagues are bigger than ever.

No one was Asian American before they came here. Someday, Asian Americans may exist in a space independent from notions of whiteness or non-whiteness. But for now, Asian America is something being invented, every day, bit by bit, 18 million people engaging in a collective act of creation. There is yet, it seems, further to go.

Correction added: The previous version left ambiguous the degree of middle class attainment among Puerto Ricans. The wording has been changed to clarify that only a small percentage of Puerto Ricans entered the middle class and helped divide African American-Puerto Rican political alliances.

This article was published in the July 2014 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the June issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).



Cul-Film-0714-Impact-NEW

Asian Americans: The New White?

Asian Americans are held up as the great success story, on the fast track to assimilation. But this has put us at the center of the debate about fairness in this country, raising the question: Are we becoming white?

story by Eugene Yi
photo illustration by SUEJEAN AHN
photo by MIKE LEE

In 1922, Takao Ozawa, a Japanese man who had lived in the U.S. for decades, sued the federal government to be considered white. His application for citizenship had been rejected, as naturalization was only offered to “free white persons,” “aliens of African nativity” and “persons of African descent.” In his case, Ozawa mentioned the similarities in skin tone between his and a white person’s, as well as his loyalty. He wrote, “In name, Benedict Arnold was an American, but at heart he was a traitor. In name, I am not an American, but at heart I am a true American.”

Ozawa’s case wound up before the Supreme Court, which did not, in the end, think Ozawa could be considered white. The result must not have been a surprise, coming as it did during the age of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the yellow peril and Yellow Peril, an influential 1911 book which argued that, in fulfillment of the Book of Revelations, Jesus Christ would descend from heaven to protect the “Occident” against marauding hordes of Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Korean people.

Ninety-two years later, the boundaries of whiteness appear to have grown more generous. A few months ago, the Washington Post ran an op-ed called “How the Asians Became White.” UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh opined on coverage of the diversity numbers of the employees at Google. The New York Times had earlier written that Silicon Valley remained a “white man’s world.” But, Volokh noted, while there is a lack of black and Latino employees, Google was actually less white than the American workforce as a whole, and far more Asian, with about a third of the employees of Asian descent. Volokh sagely wrote that he’d been observing that type of oversight for some time, and quoted himself from something he’d written prior on the topic. This one, from 1998: “To some extent, this sort of mistake is funny and even a bit heartwarming. The racial divisions between white and Asian, once so stark and to many almost unbridgeable, are quickly fading away.”

To have one’s ethnicity, one’s race, stripped away is nothing short of a provocation, even if it is “heartwarming.” “So what?” one might think. It’s the kind of provocation one should expect on the Internet, which runs on cats and outrage. And the “Asians becoming white” headline is nothing new. Coming from the other side of the political spectrum, ethnic studies scholar Scott Kurashige wrote in 1992 that Asian Americans were like Casper the Friendly Ghost: seen as either white or invisible. Other left-leaning columnists have made similar observations.

CS-Minority-0714-1harvardScreenshot of a website set up by the Project on Fair Representation, which seeks testimonials from people who think they were rejected by a school over race. 

So apparently, Asian Americans are basically white, or at least “honorary whites,” next in line to “become” white, a model for other minorities to follow. A comparison to European ethnic groups is often made, usually the Jews. It is, on the face of it, not an unconvincing argument. Asian Americans are immigrants also, stereotyped for having great success in this country. So great is the desire to succeed that Asian Americans are supposed to embody every stereotype of assimilation: educational attainment, loss of foreign language, intermarriage, what have you. For that, Asian Americans are noticeably overrepresented in higher education and in technological and scientific fields.

Thanks to people like Volokh, the occasional overrepresentation of Asian Americans has been cast as a question about the basic fairness of this country. It’s rare for Asian Americans to be at the center of an issue of such import; we are still often invisible, after all. But whiteness has so many connotations that it’s difficult not to be disquieted by this type of talk. More than just a political question, at its root, it is a more personal matter, one that touches on the very nature of being Asian American itself.

* * *

We all knew what the acronyms meant. Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1980s and ’90s, I heard it plenty. UCLA: University of Caucasians Lost among Asians. Or U C Lots of Asians. UCI: University of Chinese Immigrants, or University of Civics and Integras (To the millennials, those were popular with the rice-rocket set back then). A ton of Asians went to UCs, and multiple acronyms existed, which speaks to both how obvious this phenomenon was, and to the endless creativity of procrastinating students.

When my high school class started hearing back from colleges, one of my Latino classmates received acceptances from a few schools that I had not gotten into. His application essay had been a gritty account of growing up in a tough part of town, errant bullets embedded in the drywall in his childhood bedroom. Mine was an existential deconstruction of Alphaville’s 1984 new wave hit “Forever Young,” a 500-word cri de coeur set to sighing synths. Though one might be tempted to pin his better fortunes on his race, I think the essays probably say it all.

I remember we all compared admissions letters, and shared in the realization that it would be a different letter—the financial aid package—that would determine where we’d end up. The aforementioned classmate mentioned how much money he’d received in financial aid, and boasted that he could lend us some. In a fit of adolescent pique, I blurted that he shouldn’t be proud of the fact that his parents hadn’t worked as hard as mine had.

PROP 209 PROTESTAP Photo/FRANK WIESE
A file photo from Oct. 23, 1996, when UCLA students, surrounded by Los Angeles Police officers, staged a sit-in in West Los Angeles, during a protest against then-ballot Proposition 209, which ended many aspects of affirmative action in California. 

It was a brutish outburst, a dumb thing for a kid to say. I didn’t know anything about his family or their story. I certainly didn’t know anything about affirmative action. And I cringe at the memory now, because I am dismayed that it sounded so much like a talking point for anti-affirmative action activists. They argue that success is being penalized, and Asian Americans are proof of the need to do away with the consideration of race. Some cite studies remarking on the difference in average SAT scores between the races, or talk about suspiciously consistent percentages of Asian Americans in Ivy League student bodies. One recent example is a set of websites seeking testimonials of people who believe they have been rejected from a school because of their race. Set up by the Project on Fair Representation (essentially a one-man operation helmed by Edward Blum, a former investment banker and fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute), the goal is to gather enough potential plaintiffs to challenge universities that use applicants’ race and ethnicity as admissions criteria. Many of the pictures used by the websites, despite denials from Blum, feature Asian or Asian-looking people. Smelling a rat, Julianne Hing, who wrote about the effort for the progressive news website Colorlines, pointedly asked, “How do you know when you’re a pawn in someone else’s race war?”

All of this pits Asian Americans against underrepresented minorities, and is a continuation of the history of weaponizing the model minority myth. Sociologist William Petersen coined the expression “model minority” in a story he wrote in 1966 for the New York Times Magazine about the success of Japanese Americans. Indeed, it was called “Success Story, Japanese American Style.” But he didn’t evince an obvious agenda, and approached the topic with the mannered caution of a trained academic. He goes through the litany of crimes committed against Japanese Americans: discrimination, suspicion, internment, deprivation of basic rights. He allows himself to drop his objectivity only when marveling at their success, at how far they had come, “by their own almost totally unaided effort.” Petersen contrasted the Japanese American experience with that of other groups, including, interestingly, the Chinese, whom he did not see as being successful.

Kurashige, the ethnic studies scholar, wrote about the ways that the African American and Japanese American communities interacted in Los Angeles following World War II in his book, The Shifting Grounds of Race (2008). Japanese Americans returned to L.A. after the internment, and initially struggled to get back on their feet. Alliances formed between the Japanese American and African American communities to fight for common goals. But as Japanese Americans’ lot improved, tension between the two communities emerged, he argued.

“The ideological characterization of Japanese Americans as a ‘model minority’ to be integrated served to stigmatize the others as ‘problem minorities’ to be contained,” he wrote.

Criticisms of the model minority myth generally mention the widely divergent outcomes for different groups of Asians. While some groups are doing well, others lag behind, with educational outcomes and household incomes at the bottom end of the spectrum. Much academic work has been done adding needed nuance, yet the impression still exists. Sociologist Nadia Kim took her stab at trying to complicate the picture in her drily titled 2007 paper “Critical Thoughts on Asian American Assimilation in the Whitening Literature.” The paper reads like the academic equivalent of a diss track. Asian Americans, she wrote, “do not desire a white identity.” A sense of mission is readily apparent, and her language is often accusatory, full of italics and verve.

CS-Minority-0714-3saynosca5AP Photo/FRANK WIESE
Asian Americans protest a Senate Constitutional Amendment in California that would have asked voters to consider eliminating California Proposition 209’s affirmative action ban.

Regarding the 1965 law that opened up the country to immigration from Asia, and its policy of favoritism for educated professionals, she wrote it had been enacted “as if to engineer a model minority.”

Regarding intermarrying: “[C]ontrary to popular wisdom, the second largest proportion of marriages is not Asian-white couplings but interethnic marriages, that is, marriages between different Asian ethnic groups.”

Regarding financial success: Asian American poverty is at “a rate considerably higher than for white Americans.” And individual income lags behind comparable whites.

And regarding the idea “that European immigrants were once not white but later became white. Such a claim has not been conclusively supported by historians themselves.” Their whiteness was never questioned, she argues, citing a study showing that Italian Americans, unlike Takao Ozawa, were never denied citizenship. Additionally, Kim brought up the history of European ethnic groups shoring up their whiteness by literally attacking African Americans. More recent history provides troubling parallels. The tensions between Korean Americans and African Americans in the leadup to the L.A. riots in 1992 may not have been about shoring up whiteness, but it certainly created tension between Korean Americans and African Americans, adding another example to an established pattern. Proximity to whiteness is often affirmed by distance from blackness.

* * *

Affirmative action again stirred controversy in California earlier this year. I watched with great interest. Usually, it’s the white conservatives using Asian Americans to make an argument against the policy. This time, it was Asian Americans making the argument themselves.

A bill, known as Senate Constitutional Amendment 5, would have put the issue of race in college admissions back in front of the voters. The use of race has been illegal since 1998. After the ban of the use of race went into effect, admissions rates for black, Latino and Native American students dropped precipitously across the University of California system. White and Asian American rates remained largely unchanged. Student enrollment for fall 2013 in the UC system showed Asian Americans made up 40 percent of the undergraduate population, a massive overrepresentation for a group that makes up about 14 percent of the state’s population. Depending on one’ s political persuasion, one could see this as either cause to unite to increase diversity and opportunities for underrepresented minorities, or, just rewards for hard work, something to defend. It was a classic wedge issue.

An ad hoc group of mostly first-generation Chinese and South Asian Americans waged a fierce online campaign against SCA 5, full of hyperbolic language and rumors about the bill. One op-ed on the website Siliconindia called it “The Most Racist Bill in the History of California.” SCA 5 became “Skin Color Amendment 5” in other tellings. Crude pics repurposed the “I Have a Dream” speech and the image of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to have him make the case against affirmative action from beyond the grave.

Polling data generally shows that Asian Americans strongly favor affirmative action. This had put Asian Americans in alliance with other communities of color. But in this case, these new activists’ voices were louder, and it was enough to compel several Asian American state lawmakers to back away from what they initially thought was an uncontroversial bill. Asian American Republicans sought to capitalize on the split, announcing their opposition to affirmative action.

GALICH COYNEAP Photo/MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ
Conservative students at the University of California at Berkeley staged this “protest” of affirmative action on Feb. 26, 2003, holding a bake sale with treats priced according to the buyer’s ethnicity, gender and social status. 

I’d always wondered if or when this particular shoe would drop. Amy Chua recently made herself a celebrity as the Tiger Mom, raising model minority cubs. But she’s not stumping for education reform, or denying pee breaks in public schools to keep kids on task, or whatever. But with the protesters in California, a new reality seems to have emerged: There are Asian Americans who are willing to take the model minority myth, and march in the metaphorical streets. And if that means scuttling political orthodoxy and solidarity with other communities of color, so be it.

Instructive parallels exist in other communities. Historian Sonia Song-Ha Lee, of Washington University, wrote about the activist history of New York’s Puerto Rican community in her book, Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement. African Americans and Puerto Ricans activists often fought alongside each other until the ’70s, when the coalition started to fray. Several factors contributed to an eventual split, including the growing political influence of Puerto Ricans who had entered the middle class. Fissures started to form along class lines, according to Lee.

“The middle class was able to dominate the conversation by the ’70s. A lot of these middle-class Puerto Ricans started to prioritize job security, and started to choose narrow political goals, versus broader visions of rebuilding a new society,” she said. Some middle-class Puerto Ricans even trotted out a familiar argument: that they shared a common path with earlier waves of European immigrants, overcoming prejudice to reach an attainable American dream through bootstrapping alone. But at that point, entry into the middle class had proven elusive for the overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans.

There are echoes of this line of thinking when Asian Americans take up the argument for merit in education. For some, status in the middle class is a birthright rather than an aspiration. Much of the SCA 5 activity was focused in the ethnic suburbs around Silicon Valley and Los Angeles, well-off parts of town with more recent immigrants from China and India who might be less interested in broader messages of solidarity. This, despite the fact that the majority of Asian Americans still support affirmative action, and that, importantly, some Asian American groups are lagging far behind others.

“I think for better or worse what we were seeing in the SCA 5 battle is … Asian Americans expressing a greater sense of agency for their own purposes, which are moving in contradictory political directions,” said Kurashige. “Therefore, we ought to expect not a simple shift in any specific direction, but some heated debates and struggles to define Asian American politics in the 21st century.”

Outside of education and the tech industry, though, the issue is not as contentious, according to Vincent Pan, of the advocacy group Chinese for Affirmative Action. “Nearly all Asian Americans agree with affirmative action in employment hiring and promotion, public contracting, judicial, media and political representation—and so we can appreciate the need and benefit for affirmative action,” Pan said. “It is highly inconsistent and detrimental to abandon it with respect to higher education admissions.”

* * *

One hundred years ago, it would’ve been difficult to imagine Asian Americans having this place in the racial hierarchy to even prompt such conversations. For most of the history of Asian Americans in the U.S., violence and xenophobia ruled. The biggest mass lynching in American history happened in Los Angeles’ Chinatown in 1871, where anywhere from 15 to 21 Chinese people were killed, depending on the account. Anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II led to the internment of more than 100,000 people, mostly American citizens. In 1982, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, was murdered during another rising tide of anti-Japanese hysteria. More recently, South Asians have been targeted and murdered following the 9/11 attacks.

“History tells us that anti-Asian discrimination won’t go away so quickly. Just because right now, we find ourselves in a semi-white position, it doesn’t mean we’ll be here forever,” said Lee, the historian. “We still hold a fairly precarious position.”

It seems anytime an Asian country becomes the enemy, Asian Americans become the target. Being an “other” in America is never far from having violent consequences. How many of us second-generation Asian Americans have held our breaths and waited for potential fall-out with every ominous “China Rising” headline or when it’s revealed that the perpetrator in some heinous crime in the U.S. is Asian? Or, for that matter, recent mass shootings that seem to be partially inspired by some very twisted neuroses rooted in being Asian?

LEEAP Photo/PAUL SANCYA
Amy Lee places flowers at the gravestone of her nephew, Vincent Chin, at a 20th anniversary memorial at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Detroit on June 23, 2002. Chin, a Chinese American, was beaten to death with a baseball bat by two unemployed autoworkers who mistook him for Japanese. 

This push-and-pull at the core of Asian American life—white/not-white, and foreigner/native—seems to have cycled over the course of American history. No matter how close to white Asian Americans might become, this perpetual foreigner status remained. For most Asians in America, after all, the experience of other-ness is seared into us. When you walk into a room, you look around and count the Asian people. It’s a defining experience for people of color in this country. And it helps explain some of the curious political behavior of Asian Americans.

Generally, one of the best indicators for political allegiance is income. By that metric, Asian Americans should be pretty Republican. But instead, Asian Americans have shown the greatest shift to the Democratic Party of any group in the last 20 years. More than three-quarters of Asian Americans voted for Obama in the last election.

“Asian American political behavior is counter to what traditional political science research would predict,” said political science professor Cecilia Hyunjung Mo, in an email interview. “Further, wealthier Asian Americans are not any more likely to vote Republican than poorer Asian Americans.” She and her colleagues conducted a series of experiments where two groups of Asian Americans were asked about their political allegiances. One group, though, was primed with what they called “racial microaggressions,” where a white lab assistant would say something all too familiar to any Asian American: “You speak good English.” “Where were you born?”

Asian Americans who had been primed with a microaggression allied themselves significantly more strongly with the Democratic Party, 87 percent to 76 percent. The results seem to indicate that not only are Asian Americans aware they are still considered to outsiders, but that one of the two political parties is perceived not to welcome outsiders. Which, incidentally, is the party most associated with xenophobia, exclusivity and a certain strain of American whiteness.

* * *

I recently attended a panel where one of the panelists, an Asian American businessman who’d worked for some of the largest firms in the country, said that if one believed in a bamboo ceiling—a limit to how far an Asian American could rise—then one must believe in the existence of a “short” ceiling, an “ugly” ceiling, a “fat” ceiling. Being Asian is, according to this telling, an overcomeable condition—nothing that a diet or some platform shoes couldn’t help with.

Many would respond by pointing to the underrepresentation of Asian Americans in the upper echelons of corporate America. But the businessman’s words make it seem as if it’s just a matter of time. As Asians, as perpetual foreigners, as “others,” we might still do our little headcounts when we walk into a room. But the rooms, for some, are getting fancier.

The criticisms of the model minority myth are myriad, and valid. But what truth there is to it must be reckoned with. If whiteness can be defined, at least partly, as the lack of impediments to success, then it might be hard not to find this aspect of whiteness readily present in the Asian American community.

CS-Minority-0714-4Time1CS-Minority-0714-4Time2
Two different Time covers that are essentially making the model minority argument—(left) the infamous 1987 “whiz kids” cover, and (right) the 2011 “tiger mom” cover. 

There is another aspect to this lack of impediment, though, one that has nothing to do with whiteness. The non-European wave of immigration that started in 1965 scrambled America’s racial logic, forcing new lines to be drawn beyond the old black/white and foreigner/native. We live in a country that’s, really, just starting to contend with the second generation of this wave of immigrants. Even though Asian Americans make up only 4 percent of the population, there are times when I marvel at how accustomed I’ve become to seeing faces that look like mine. Any reader of this publication is familiar with the ways Korean Americans are contributing to popular culture and mainstream society. There are moments when I just scratch my head in amazement, wondering, “What aren’t we doing?” There are still things to fight for, of course. Asian American men are still emasculated, as evidenced by any of the seemingly annual studies on how poorly they do in online dating. In popular media, there’ s still more Mr. Chow from the Hangover movies, than Glenn Rhee from The Walking Dead. Asian women continue to be exoticized. The consequences of “otherness” will linger, publicly through discrimination, hate crime, violence and privately, in undiagnosed ways.

There is a real phenomenon at work: the normalizing of people of color. But far from making the country post-racial, it seems to have grown hyper-racial. Two conversations are happening simultaneously: both whether, and how, race matters. The success of a person of color means either the proclamation that race doesn’t matter in American life, or the argument that one is ignoring the myriad ways it still does.

There is a reading of this phenomenon that could see this period as birth pangs of some society that is closer to some inclusive ideal. But as this post-’65 generation ages and assimilates, there is a different aspect of whiteness that comes to mind: whiteness as lacking a culture. As being “merely” American. The fear is that something essential is being lost, a sense of self and identity that goes beyond advice on Korean restaurants and maybe a word or two in the native language. The single largest ethnic group in America is from Germany. There once were literally hundreds of German-language newspapers circulating in the U.S. Now, there are barely any, and few really even think of Germans as anything but part of the white spectrum.

But different facets of whiteness don’t just fall like dominoes. Whiteness is an ill-defined complex of traits and tendencies. And it’s an actual field of study, with many universities offering classes in whiteness studies. Oft-quoted is W.E.B DuBois, the first African American to earn a Ph.D., from Harvard, and one of the foremost minds on race relations in the era just after slavery. He wrote, “The discovery of a personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing—a nineteenth and twentieth century matter, indeed.” The author James Baldwin, another masterful commenter on race in America, wrote in his essay “On Being White … And Other Lies,” “No one was white before he/she came to America.”

Evelyn Yoshimura, the community organizing director at the Little Tokyo Service Center, a nonprofit in L.A., told me a story once about Harry Kitano, an old lion of Asian American studies at UCLA. He used to rail that Japanese Americans were not going to be around for long. Because of their economic success, because of their assimilation, because of their rate of intermarriage, they would just be gone, integrated into the white mainstream.

At first, she said, that seemed to be the case. Japanese Americans intermarried at high rates, assimilated quickly and left Little Tokyos and Japantowns for the suburbs. Community organizations limped along, hosting their events for a dwindling number of people.

Then, some hapa kids started showing up at the annual 3-on-3 basketball tournament. Then more. Enough so that the tournament started to grow. Soon, other programs grew as well. And now, the community’s leadership programs, training sessions and their basketball leagues are bigger than ever.

No one was Asian American before they came here. Someday, Asian Americans may exist in a space independent from notions of whiteness or non-whiteness. But for now, Asian America is something being invented, every day, bit by bit, 18 million people engaging in a collective act of creation. There is yet, it seems, further to go.

Correction added: The previous version left ambiguous the degree of middle class attainment among Puerto Ricans. The wording has been changed to clarify that only a small percentage of Puerto Ricans entered the middle class and helped divide African American-Puerto Rican political alliances.

This article was published in the July 2014 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the June issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).



Jeremy Lin

Jeremy Lin Headed To The Lakers In A Trade

Jeremy Lin is headed to the Los Angeles Lakers after the Houston Rockets traded the point guard to clear salary cap space for the expected free agent signing of Chris Bosh, according to ESPN.

The Lakers also receive a future first-round pick and other draft considerations. In return, the Rockets take cash and rights to an overseas player from the Lakers, according to Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarwski, a reputable NBA insider.

When LeBron James took over the headlines earlier today by announcing his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the largest domino fell in the NBA’s free agency.

Lin has been caught in the middle of these conversations with multiple reports hinting that he could be headed to the Philadelphia 76ers in a trade this past week.

By sending Lin and his contract to the Lakers (worth $8.4 million), Houston would have enough cap space to sign a maximum contract with Bosh. The trade makes sense for the Lakers, too, as they don’t have to worry about absorbing the contract, which expires next summer. They hardly have any players signed at the moment, anyways.

Unfortunately, Mike D’Antoni, who was head coach of the New York Knicks during Linsanity, is no longer with the Lakers.

LGA_skin-918x1400-blue

Adoptees Shed Their Clothes In A Powerful Issue Of ‘Gazillion Voices’

by JAMES S. KIM

When online magazine Gazillion Voices launched last year, the cover story for their inaugural issue portrayed adoptees ripping tape off their mouths. It was a message to the world that now is the time for adoptees, along with their friends and allies, to share their thoughts and perspectives on their own terms.

Since then, Gazillion Voices published 12 issues, with the latest marking a one year anniversary for the magazine. To celebrate, it poses another important question in the cover story: Do adoptees feel comfortable in their skin?

Aptly titled “The Skin Issue,” the series of images by photographer Denis Jeong and the accompanying testimonies show adoptees shedding their clothes and revealing narratives that are but the beginning to complex, layered and emotional conversations in the adoptee community.

The hope is that with this story, the shared commonalities will resonate with members of the immigrant, LGBTQ and People of Color (POC) communities.

“I feel great about the first 12 months of Gazillion Voices,” said founder and co-editor Kevin Haebeom Vollmers, who started the Land of Gazillion Adoptees blog in 2011. “I know we have a lot of work ahead of us, but it is truly an honor to work with a team that is so dedicated, talented and forward-thinking. Gazillion Voices has made its mark, in adoption and beyond and I am looking forward to pushing the envelope in the next year.”

If you are in the Minneapolis area, the images will be on display at Boneshaker Books in the Seward neighborhood next month. The opening reception for the two-week exhibit will take place Aug. 14 at 7 p.m.

Here are a few excerpts from “The Skin Issue.” You can check out the full story on the Gazillion Voices website.

GV1

Name: Ashley Wilson
Age: 28
Gender: Female
Identify as: American

Have you always felt comfortable in your skin? The short answer is, “No, I haven’t.” Not until the last few years have I really started to feel comfortable.

Now for the longer answer. What it really comes down to for me is understanding my place in this world as “me” and not as what society believes “me” to be. This has been a difficult thing to do, and I imagine it would be for anyone of any demographic. Society has a twisted way of making people feel bad about themselves.

Being a woman is one thing to handle in this society, but add to that being of Asian descent. On top of being both a woman and Asian, now add the fact of being adopted. Then consider being adopted into an American family, which happens to be Caucasian. But, it doesn’t end there. Now place that Caucasian American family in a small, rural town, where few, if any, people look like you. With all of that to work on, a person is expected to feel comfortable?

It’s not easy. There are a lot of ignorant people in society. It can be difficult and sometimes emotionally painful to have to deal with the careless words people can use in everyday, casual conversation. There’s an old saying that only you can control how you feel about what is said or done in your presence. While this may be true, there should still be accountability by the other party as to what develops in their brain to come out of their mouth. It seems very one-sided that I should have to deal with rude and hurtful words spoken by others. Perhaps they should take a few moments before speaking to think about what they’re about to say. That’s the core of the accountability issue.

Fun fact: I have five parents. I can hold a conversation in Swedish.

Favorite hobby: My newest obsession would have to be Ultimate Frisbee. It’s so much fun and a great workout!

GV2

Name: Luke Bengston
Age: 28
Gender: Male
Identify as: Korean

Have you always felt comfortable in your skin? I haven’t ever really felt comfortable in my own skin. I feel most at home and most comfortable with myself amongst other Koreans and in my natural habitat—Korea. I always felt like an alien here in Minnesota my whole life, though making friends in the KAD community has helped me become more at peace with myself and who I am.

Favorite hobby: Exercise and skateboarding

GV3

Name: Niki Burns. My given Korean name: Kim, Sung Mee
Gender: I’m a woman
Age: 34
Gender: I’m a woman
Identify as: Asian American/Korean American/Korean with a side of Sassy

Have you always felt comfortable in your skin? No, especially growing up in a predominately white community. I grew up in the suburbs of St. Paul where my sister and I made up the majority of minority people in our schools. Didn’t really start to feel comfortable until after high school.

Fun fact: I’m a twin.
Favorite hobby: Hiking, camping, biking, walking, live music, bonfires, sports, etc.

Images by Denis Jeong/Gazillion Voices

Wong Fu

YouTube Superpower Wong Fu Productions To Make A Movie

by JAMES S. KIM

For more than a decade, short-film-producing sensation Wong Fu Productions has made fans laugh and click “share,” raking in more than 2 million YouTube subscribers.

Now, they’re working on their biggest project yet.

Founders Wesley Chan, Ted Fu and Philip Wang announced their plans for their first feature film earlier this year, and after blasting past their initial goal of $200,000 on indiegogo, the principal cast was released last week.

“Our story takes place in a world where all relationship activity is documented and monitored by the Department of Emotional Integrity (DEI),” reads a description on the Wong Fu website. “Much like a credit score is given to represent financial responsibility, a relationship score is given to keep individuals accountable for the relationship activity and choices. The score is public for all to see, and affects various aspects of daily life.

In the film we follow two couples who are experiencing different challenges in their relationships. Seth and Haley are two high schoolers who are registering their relationship for the first time, and Ben and Sara, a former couple in their mid twenties who must meet again to settle an old report.

Through these two stories we are going to explore how love changes over time, and how to believe in your heart again after it’s been hurt.”

Aaron Yoo

Brittany Ishibashi

Brandon Soo Hoo

Victoria Park

Chris Riedell

Randall Park

Joanna Sotomura

Ki Hong Lee

Images via Wong Fu Productions

Pot-Intro-0712-VINCENT1

Renewing the Legacy of Vincent Chin for A Younger Generation of Asian Americans

This week, KoreAm joins other Asian American organizations in commemorating the hate crime killing of Vincent Chin. This story, marking the 30th anniversary of the landmark case in Asian American history, originally appeared in our July 2012 issue. 

Asian American activists shine a light on a landmark hate crime that galvanized the community and holds lessons 30 years later.

by CRYSTAL KIM

June marked the 30th anniversary of the violent murder of Vincent Chin, perhaps the most well-known Asian American hate crime victim, and someone whose name and face would become a symbol of the first major pan-Asian American civil rights movement.

But despite being the “most well-known,” there are many Asian Americans who know nothing about Chin or the circumstances surrounding his 1982 killing by two white Detroit autoworkers. The fact that the killers, who heckled the Chinese American with racial slurs as they beat him to death with a baseball bat, served no jail time set off outrage among many Asian Americans at the time.

“If this really happened, why isn’t it a bigger deal? Why did I not know about it [earlier]?” asked Minhoon Sohn, a student at Hamilton College, recalling his initial reaction to a screening of the documentary Vincent Who? (2009), about the Chin case, last year at his New York campus.

Sohn’s questions point to the motivation behind recent efforts to bring the case back into the spotlight for today’s younger generation—efforts like the documentary, as well as the more recent June 23 Google Hangout event, Vincent Chin 30: Standing Up Then and Now.

The nationwide dialogue was streamed online, enabling people all over the world to view the multi-way video meeting. Viewing parties in more than 30 cities were organized, and participants were able to submit questions through Twitter.

“We’re trying to elevate the conversation on bullying, hazing—that all this hate still [happens] and is relevant, [that] there’s plenty of work that still needs to be done,” said Phil Yu, the blogger behind the popular Angry Asian Man website, several days before the Hangout, which he moderated. “We also want to utilize the technology at our disposal to really connect people across the country and get everyone in on this conversation.”

Yu first learned about the Chin murder as a college student in 1999 and said it compelled him to contemplate the deeper implications of identifying as an Asian American. “[It was] more than just being comfortable or confident with my culture,” he explained. “It challenged me to think about how race plays a part in the way we all interact with each other, whether we’re aware about it or not. Most importantly, it showed me that Asian Americans have a place in the fight for racial justice.”

For many, the Chin case illustrated how Asian Americans were and still are victims of racial discrimination and violence. It also showed many Asian Americans that hate crimes do not distinguish between Japanese, Chinese, Korean or any other Asian ethnic group, and that there is a need to unite across ethnicities.

After all, when Chin’s killers, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, confronted him on June 19, 1982, at a Detroit strip club, where Chin was having his bachelor party, they thought he was Japanese. The disgruntled former autoworkers blamed the Japanese for the deteriorating U.S. auto industry and their unemployment. They instigated a brawl, and after being kicked out of the bar, Ebens and stepson Nitz looked for and found Chin, and beat him multiple times in the head with a baseball bat. He died after four days in a coma, leaving behind a devastated fiancée, a grief-stricken mother and an enraged community.

In 1983, the second injustice occurred, after Ebens and Nitz were convicted of second-degree manslaughter, and were able to go free with a sentence of three years of probation and a $3,780 fine.

“In the larger population of Detroit, there was actually a lot of sympathy for the two killers because many auto workers had gone through similar situations—being laid off, losing their homes,” said Curtis Chin (no relation to Vincent), writer and producer of the Vincent Who? documentary.

After the sentencing, a coalition of outraged Asian American groups led multiple protests and rallies demanding federal prosecution of Ebens and Nitz. A 1984 federal civil rights case resulted in a sentence of 25 years in prison for Ebens. However, he went free after posting bail; Nitz, meanwhile, was cleared of all charges. In a retrial three years later, Ebens was also declared not guilty of violating Chin’s civil rights.

Though justice was not served, the case led Asian American leaders to call for a national pan-Asian civil rights organization that would advocate for the community and monitor hate crimes. In 1991, the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, now called the Asian American Justice Center, was founded to play those roles.

Curtis Chin, who is a board member of the nonprofit organization Asian Pacific Americans for Progress, said he was motivated to make his documentary in part, to showcase the incredible collective work of civil rights leaders and organizations.

“The fact that we have screened the film at over 250 colleges makes us feel good,” said Chin. “But there is definitely a lot more work that needs to be done for our community to achieve equality.”

Hate crimes against Asian Americans continue to occur, and there were two recent high-profile cases of military hazing that involved anti-Asian taunting and resulted in the suicides of U.S. Army Pvt. Danny Chen and U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Harry Lew, both in 2011. The country’s lingering recession and the prevailing “rise of China” headlines also make the threat of anti-Asian hate crimes feel even more relevant.

“We don’t want another tragedy for people to be motivated again,” said Chin. “We want to be able to learn from the past in order to inspire people to prevent things like this from happening.”

Political activism among Asian Americans today seems both harder and easier, Chin noted. On one hand, people seem to be more cynical about political involvement; on the other, there are many resources that everyday citizens can take advantage of to mobilize.

“That’s really one thing that sets us apart from the activists who took hold of Vincent Chin’s case,” said Angry Asian Man’s Yu. “Wow, they did all that without the use of technology, and God bless them for taking that on to mobilize all those people. But now we have all these amazing tools at our disposal.”

The recent Google Hangout is an example of utilizing one of those tools. Across the country, the panelists talked about working together on future initiatives: to hold a national discourse on bullying and continue to build alliances among ethnicities.

Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-Calif.) brought up the Harry Lew Military Hazing Accountability and Prevention Act (named after her nephew), which was passed by the House in May. The provisions would track military hazing incidents, provide a statutory definition of hazing in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and require the Department of Defense to develop a plan to address hazing in the armed services.

Zahra Billoo, executive director of the San Francisco chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, has been involved in the post-9/11 fight for civil liberties of Muslim Americans. During the Hangout, she shared a quote that inspired her to fight for the Asian American community as a whole: “It’s sort of a natural reaction to stand up against injustice when you are the victim. But where you define courage is when you stand up when you are not the victim—when you stand up based on principles. When you know that xenophobia and targeting and racism are wrong.”

paul-dol-small

Immigrant Heritage Month Reminds Us There’s Strength in America’s Diversity

by PAUL SONG

(Above photo: Paul Song and wife Lisa Ling celebrate the one-year birthday of their daughter Jett, along with Mary Ling (Lisa’s mother, far left), Grace Eun Hyung Kim (Paul’s mother) and Doug Ling (Lisa’s father), March, 2014.)

June marks the first ever Immigrant Heritage Month, organized by a new nonprofit called Welcome.us. There is one simple focus: encouraging all individuals to share our own immigrant experiences. It will help serve as a reminder that our strength as a country is a direct result of the diversity within our borders.

I know that I draw great strength, and a large part of my identity, from my immigrant background and the set of circumstances that led my family to these shores. Today, I am an oncologist, health care activist and biotech executive who works to improve the health of everyone. As the executive chairman of the Courage Campaign, a progressive online organization of over 900,000 active members, I am also committed to fighting for the least among us and for human rights for all. And, on a more personal level, I play the very important roles of husband, father and son in my Asian American family.

songs,aisle3

Paul Song with his parents, 

Grace Eun Hyung Kim and Won Ryul Song, 2007.

It’s a family whose story, on my side, begins more than 60 years ago, when my mom came to the United States via freightliner from Busan in 1951. She was a Korean War refugee from Seoul whose family had been displaced when the communists overtook their city. By the grace of God and the Herculean efforts of my mom’s older sister, who was already studying in the U.S., my mom was fortunate enough to receive a scholarship to study in New York.

The tremendous draw to the United States and what it stood for was not new. Prior to the war, my aunt had always dreamed of coming to the U.S. to study, but my grandfather would only allow her to go if she learned to speak perfect English. Determined, she studied every day before school with a prominent American Presbyterian missionary, Lillias Underwood. Tragically, Mrs. Underwood was assassinated by communists in 1949. In her honor, a memorial scholarship was established for one Korean student to study in the U.S., and my aunt was the very first recipient. She was studying at Hood College in Maryland when the Korean War broke out and was asked to speak to various American churches, which wanted to know more about her homeland. It was during one of these presentations that a group offered to help my mom with a full scholarship.

My mom would eventually go on to receive a master’s degree from Columbia Teacher’s College in early childhood education, with a focus on Head Start, a federal program that provides early childhood education for low-income families. She figured that if she ever did return to Korea, that there would be tremendous poverty and a real need for a similar program.

She spent her early professional years at the Mt. Cavalry Child Care Center in Harlem, New York, under the guidance of an amazing woman whose own American story helped define an entire generation. Shirley Chisholm, who would later become the first African American woman elected to Congress, mentored my mom and later sponsored her, as she sought to earn a green card. Chisholm later endorsed my mom to become the education director for the entire Newark, New Jersey, Head Start program.

In 1958, my mom met my father, a native of Pyongyang. His  family had lost everything when they fled to the South before the start of the Korean War. He served in the South Korean Navy during the war and, after graduating from Yonsei University, would come to the U.S. to complete his Ph.D. in chemistry. They would marry in 1959.

Their original intent was to go back and help rebuild their homeland. And, just as they were beginning to build a life together in the U.S., the struggles of the past were never too far away.

(1961-01-06)USIS ¥∫Ω∫ ¿Œ≈Õ∫‰

 Song’s grandfather, Sang Don Kim, 1961.

In 1960, my late maternal grandfather, Sang Don Kim, would become the first democratically elected mayor of Seoul. Unfortunately, he was swept up in a military coup in 1961 and thrown in jail. Despite numerous attempts by the military, he was found not guilty and released five months later, but placed under house arrest and barred from future politics. He would eventually be exiled to the U.S. and never allowed to return. My family did not set foot again in Korea until 1992 when democracy was fully restored.

Through all of this, my parents, and eventually my younger sister and I, called the United States home. My parents were forever grateful to their adopted country and strived to build a life worthy of pride and to give something back.

My family’s journey is not without some pain, but I know this history deeply influenced my early years and my overall development into the person I am today.

The United States is made up of so many stories like my family’s. In this first ever Immigrant Heritage Month, I encourage all of us to share our stories that collectively make this country richer and greater.

Please visit Welcome.us to learn more.

Photos courtesy of Paul Song.

 

henney-zero-2

Why Does Every Blockbuster Have to Kill Off the Asian Guy?

He’s in Every Action Movie–But Not for Long: Meet the Expendable Asian Crewmember

From Godzilla to X-Men to Total Recall, why does every blockbuster need a single Asian guy to kill off?

by PAULA YOUNG LEE

Fans of the original Star Trek television series, which aired from 1966 to 1969, are familiar with the old trope of the expendable Asian crewmember. Every week, one or two unlucky marginal characters, wearing the red shirt of a Security Officer, would join a landing party that usually consisted of Captain James Kirk, First Officer Spock and Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy from the starship USS Enterprise. The trio would beam down to the planet’s surface along with the Expendable Crewmember—who would promptly get killed off by a space monster/mysterious sentient cloud/primitive hostiles. The Expendable Crewmember became such a routine part of the storyline that it was spoofed on the animated television show Family Guy, and became a running joke in the 1999 film Galaxy Quest, in which Sam Rockwell’s character, “Crewman no. 6,” is a nervous wreck named Guy, so forgettable to everyone that even he knows he’s doomed to die.

As little kid, I found it a bit odd that the Klingons always missed Kirk and hit the guy in the red shirt standing next to him. And as I got older, I couldn’t help but notice two strange trends beginning to pop up in Hollywood summer blockbusters: 1) Random storylines would detour to someplace in Asia for no particularly good reason, and 2) One useless Asian character—only one—would show up and stick around just long enough to make a vague impression as a villain. Then he or she would die at the hands of the good (white) guys, who would then march off victoriously into the sunset.

Now, it has been pointed out to me that the business of killing off villains is an equal-opportunity plot device, and Asian people are not being singled out for horrible deaths. Which is true. It’s long been the case that Hollywood casts ethnic minorities as bad guys so their heads can be blasted off. In horror films, there is also the bimbo rule, which requires hot blondes to get killed off first. This is neither racist nor sexist (see no. 7 on this list, John Cho, hot blond), but the norm. The Expendable Asian Crewmember is different from the phenomenon known as the “Asian sidekick,” whose ranks include Cato in the Pink Panther film series from the ’60s and ’70s and remade in 2006; Kato in the Green Hornet television series from the ’60s, remade as a film in 2011; Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid, 1984, remade and moved from California to China, 2010; and the mutant Yukio in The Wolverine, 2013. But the vast majority of blockbuster film franchises have no Asian characters in them at all. In general, both New York City and The Future are curiously free of Asians except for Maggie Q, whose time-traveling powers enable her to pop up briefly in Divergent, 2014. There are so few Asians in the galaxy inhabited by Star Wars that a hilarious blog, “You Offend Me You Offend My Family,” has scoured the entire franchise for signs of Asian life. The results were: one rebel officer, and a dubious claim that Admiral Ackbar, fearless cephalopod leader of the Rebellion, was “Asian-like.”

Which brings me to the 2013 Star Trek reboot, with Zoe Saldana as Lt. Uhura and John Cho as Lt. Sulu, plus loads of “Asian-like” aliens, including Vulcans. When the most diverse cast in a Hollywood summer blockbuster happens to be based on a television show that debuted a half century ago, it’s better to be the Expendable (Asian) Crewmember than not be allowed on board at all. But I’m hoping it won’t be another 50 years before Mr. Sulu not only takes the helm, but gets his own ship—and can star in his own film.

Here is a mere sampling of the Expendable Asian Crewmembers I’ve spotted over the years:

X-Men 2: X-Men United, 2003. Yuriko. The perfectly coiffed, impeccably manicured and silent assistant to evil mastermind Stryker, Yuriko turns out to be a super-villain called Lady Deathstrike whose abilities closely parallel those possessed by the Wolverine. Wolverine kills her by injecting her with the rare metal adamantium in its liquid form.

X-Men 3: The Last Stand, 2006. Kid Omega. As the Mutant Brotherhood organizes against humans, Kid Omega becomes one of Magneto’s new recruits. Played by Ken Leung, he can project spikes out all over his body in the manner of an angry porcupine. He dies in a blast of psychokinetic energy unleashed by the super-mutant, Jean Grey/Phoenix.

Mission Impossible III, 2006. Zhen Lei. Played by Maggie Q, this femme fatale joins the “Impossible Mission Force,” experiences a staged death, and disappears from the story. The fact that she is Chinese does not explain why the action relocates to Shanghai as opposed to, say, Southern California, which is also inhabited by white heroes plus a few Chinese people eating noodles.

Live Free or Die Hard2007. Mai Lin. Once again played by Maggie Q, Mai Lin is a cyber-terrorist with nefarious plans that vaguely involve computer hacking. Bruce Willis blames her for the awful script and throws her down an elevator shaft.

The Dark Knight2008. Lau. Played by Chin Han, Lau is a mob accountant who hides the mob’s money and flees to Hong Kong for the express purpose of getting Batman to Asia for an extended tourist commercial involving many tall, sleek skyscrapers. Batman brings Lau back to the U.S., where he is killed by the Joker.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine, 2009. Agent Zero. A mutant expert marksman, Agent Zero, played by ethnic Korean actor Daniel Henney, not only looks fine in a tailored black suit, he has better hair than Wolverine. After many tries, Wolverine finally succeeds in mussing his rival’s hair by downing his helicopter and blowing it up.

John Cho

Total Recall (remake), 2010. Bob McClane. Played by John Cho, better known as Lt. Sulu from the “Star Trek” reboot, Bob gets killed off when he stupidly asks secret agent Doug Quaid about his feelings. This taboo question prompts a police raid that results in everybody except Quaid getting shot.

Pacific Rim, 2013. My friend Minsoo Kang, who is an expert on the history of automatons, told me that not one but “two Chinese robot operators” show up and get crushed when monsters mash their robots. (They die at the same time and don’t have names, so I will count them as one.) Not only does this film have a female lead played by Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi, but it’s set in Hong Kong, which gets smashed by machine-monsters. This film didn’t do very well in the U.S. but did extremely well in Asia (e.g., China, Korea and Japan). As summed up by Forbes, Pacific Rim was “the rare English-language film in history to cross $400 million while barely crossing $100 million domestic.”

Red 2, 2013. Han Cho-Bai. He is an international assassin sent to kill retired black-ops CIA agent Frank Moses. Moses is played by Bruce Willis, so you know he doesn’t get killed off. Neither does Han Cho-Bai (played by Korean actor Lee Byung-Hun), because he’s a red herring who is really a disguised sidekick. Though I enjoyed the display of his martial arts skills, he’s got no business being in this film except to sell tickets. It made nearly twice as much in foreign receipts as it did in the U.S., and the bulk of those tickets were sold in Japan and South Korea.
 Could there be a theme developing here? Why, yes! And it leads directly to…

_KF12136.dng

Godzilla (remake), 2014. Dr. Serizawa. Played by the legendary Ken Watanabe, the Serizawa character appears in the 1954 version set in Japan, where he unexpectedly dies. Crucially, the original Godzilla hit U.S. theaters around the same time as the first wave of Asian immigrants, in the aftermath of WWII and the Korean War. Sixty years later, the newer, sexier version of the giant lizard suggests that Godzilla is a strong, charismatic, assimilated Asian-American who wants his own starring role in a summer blockbuster without so much goofy metrosexual makeup. And just as some of the funniest Internet memes focus on the giant lizard’s new Hollywood look, it’s not a done deal that Serizawa’s character gets killed off this time around, even if he is the only Asian character with a name, thus adhering to the one-Asian rule. I guess you could call that progress.

Paula Young Lee’s most recent books are Deer Hunting in Paris: A Memoir of God, Guns, and Game Meat and Game: A Global History, both published in 2013. This article originally appeared in Salon.