Sunday, March 31, 2013

Barack Obama as our first Asian American President?: Part II

So it's a bit longer than I anticipated, but here is Part II of my playful querying about whether Barack Obama can be considered our first Asian American president (click here for Part I).

As I noted in Part I, I am not the first to make this speculation--both Rep. Mike Honda and Jeff Yang (during the 2008 elections) made note of the many Asian connections in Obama's biography and background (which I already elaborated on in the previous post).

What I didn't mention in Part I was that their imagining of Obama as Asian American was riffing off of Toni Morrison's essay in The New Yorker in which she famously was quoted as saying:
white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas
 This quote from Morrison got a lot of play during Obama's 2008 election since it was noted, many times, that Bill Clinton was not an "actual" black person but that Obama was.

However, what is missing from this widely repeated quote is the context that Morrison was writing about Clinton--namely the Lewinsky scandal and the way that the impeachment hearings were using his infidelity as the impetus to get him out of office--the ways in which

"the President’s body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and body-searched"

which Morrison saw was akin to the experience of African American men being policed and persecuted based on their sexuality.

I mention this because while one could argue that there are tropes of "Asian-ness" that we can see in Obama's life--his time spent in Indonesia, his upbringing in Hawaii, his Asian extended family--they are but symbolic gestures--figurations.  They aren't how he identifies and it's not how others would identify him either since we are still living in an age where we believe we know what someone who is "Asian" looks like, and we know what someone who is "black" looks like--and we apply these rubrics to people and call them racial identities.  

Furthermore, the truth is that Obama does not identify as Asian American.  Technically, as far as the 2010 US Census goes, he identifies as African American rather than both black and white and certainly he didn't check the "Asian" box.  And it is important for us to acknowledge that people get to identify the way they want--something folks often forget when they refer to Tiger Woods as monoracially black when he, himself, identifies as mixed-race or half-black, half-Thai.  

So why enter into this exercise at all?  I guess I wanted to think about the limits of racial ambiguity, which is the topic of my current book manuscript--the one that has been consuming me and taking me away from being able to think about blogging.  I do think that imagining race as fluid and as flexible is an anti-racist position.  But I also think that there is a historic reality to racialized bodies that we can't ignore.  And that's the tension between theory and praxis.  It's important to be able to theorize beyond our raced bodies--to imagine a place where we can acknowledge the constructed nature of race and the ways in which multiracial people especially complicate this simplistic notion that there are pure races.  But on the other hand, there are the ways that the state has regulated bodies based on believing in race.


So I will continue to think about the possibilities of what if--what if we could say that Barack Obama is our first black American, first mixed race American, and first Asian American president?  What if checked off more than one box became the norm for all of us?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Barack Obama as our first Asian American President?: Part I

It has been two months since I last wrote a post in this blog--which is embarrassing (sigh).  For all my good intentions, I have not felt compelled to write in this space, even though I, ostensibly, have the time since I'm not teaching.

But this is, perhaps, the reason why I haven't been writing in this space--because I have been immersed in trying to finish my book manuscript on racial ambiguity and Asian American culture (which also happens to be the title of the book).  I'm fortunate enough to have a research and study leave, which means I've been reading and thinking and writing and trying to make the most of my time out of the classroom.

And then, of course, as I realized how much time had passed from when I last blogged, the pressure to write something meaningful or at least intelligible increased after so much silence (sigh)--always the dilemma of the writer--the blank page and wondering if there is an audience out there.

But as I tell my students, sometimes, whether you're feeling it or not, you just have to write it.  Good advice.  So I thought I should share what I'm working on, since it has applicability to this blog.  For the last few weeks I've been thinking about the coda to my book--which is also the title of this blog post.  If race is a social construction--if it doesn't have a basis in biology or blood, then could we imagine that Barack Obama is not only our first African American president, our first (openly) mixed race president, but our first Asian American president of the United States?

Barack Obama with his sister Maya Soetoro-Ng from their earlier days

This might seem like an odd way to end a book on racial ambiguity and Asian American culture.  Yet if we think about taking the idea of racial ambiguity to its furthest extremes, if race is not just limited to what you "look" like--if you can be Asian American without Asian American family (as transracial adoptees would seem to prove), if one's racial identity is as much about culture and community as anything else, then it would seem that there are clear markers of Asian American racialization that correspond to Obama's life narrative.  For example:

*He was born and spent his formative adolescent years in the only state in the union that has a majority Asian American population.  The local culture in Hawaii is steeped in Asian American culture from the various Asian immigrants who have come to the island archipelago from the 19th C.  He can speak pidgin, he eats local food, he grew up with his grandparents preparing sashimi for guests and with Asian American neighbors and classmates.

Obama's fifth-grade class photo from The Punahou School

*He is the child of an immigrant father who came to the US to be educated (first, a BA at U of Hawaii and then a PhD at Harvard), and his name reflects these immigrant roots, with people who find it odd, foreign, and hard to pronounce (something many children of Asian immigrants with Asian names understand all too well).

*He lived for four years in Indonesia (from the ages of 6-10) thus experiencing life in an Asian country.

*He has family members--a sister (Maya Soetoro-Ng--Indonesian-white), a brother-in-law (Konrad Ng--Chinese-Malaysian from Canada) and nieces who are Indonesian-Chinese-Malaysian-white--who are Asian American.

The Soetoro-Ng family

In October 1998, writing for The New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" about the ways that President Bill Clinton was being targeted by special prosecuters for potential impeachment after revelations of his affair with Monica Lewinsky became public, Toni Morrison famously (or infamously) wrote:
Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.
Until Barack Obama was elected to office in 2008, it was believed, in certain quarters, that Morrison had claimed blackness for Bill Clinton, thus dubbing him our first black president.  But if you read the above quote (and the entire article) carefully, you will see that it is the "trope of blackness" that Morrison refers to rather than claiming that Clinton's identity is that of an African American man.

In similar fashion, claims for Barack Obama as our first Asian American president have been made by Rep. Mike Honda and Jeff Yang -- mine is not the first observation made in this regard.  

Yet what does it MEAN for me to imagine, that Barack Obama could be considered Asian American based on the trope of Asian-ness--the ways in which parts of his life narrative contain similarities to those of Asians in America?  Is this an anti-racist move, one that can remind us that race is a fiction, a social construction designed to elevate one racial group above others?  Can knowing that race is this fluid and flexible become a means to dismantle structures of institutional racism?

Stay tuned for Part II (which I promise to write this weekend!) and, of course, if there are any readers out there, I welcome your thoughts and comments, your agreements and disagreements.  I welcome dialogue, because that's the reason I started this blog to begin with--and Barack Obama was the topic of the third blog post I wrote back in May 2007.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Ending Rape Culture

About a month ago I received a comment on a blog post, "Are Jewish People a Race" that read:

"get raped you stupid chink cunt"

[Aside: I apologize for the racist, sexist language--or rather, for reprinting the racist, sexist language, but I also think it's important to know when people use this language and for what purpose.  I didn't "publish" it, but I did want to address this comment in a blog post.  Also, I re-read the post, and I don't think that the comment was trying to specifically address anything in the post that ruminates on anti-semitism but rather seemed to be a general note on the dissatisfaction that the commenter "an ah" felt about the blog/me in general.]

There's obviously a lot that could be upsetting about reading this comment.  But what I want to focus on isn't the obvious racism and sexism but the order that begins this comment:

"get raped"

There's so much about our society that is immersed in rape culture.  And what I mean by rape culture is the idea that women (and it's largely women although men are targets of rape and victims of rape) need to be regulated, and one way in which to control women is through forcible sex.

For this commenter, "an ah" (and yes, I did report him, and yes I believe it is a "him" although it might just be a woman--lets not forget that women can be violent towards other women, especially when you add the toxic blend of racism), my existence as an Asian American woman who speaks out about issues of racism, anti-semitism, sexism, homophobia, and other social justice issues is troubling/problematic to him, and so his idea of voicing his dissent is to tell me his desire that I be socially regulated through coerced and violent sexual violation.

I'm parsing all this out because it's important to always remember that at the heart of rape and rape culture is the idea of power.  Of people, largely men, who feel disempowered--who want to take control--who are threatened by changes in society--who feel vulnerable and don't know how to appropriately process these feelings of vulnerability.  Rape isn't about sexual desire--as the comment above should make clear, there's nothing about it that suggests real desire or lust--the commenter wants my rape to happen not necessarily at his hands but by someone anyone who can put me in my place, show me that I'm wrong, make me feel small--ostensibly because the commenter feels small himself.

I think it may be nearly impossible to get into the head of "an ah" or any other person who actively and openly endorses rape culture (although it is telling that "an ah" is a pseudonym--I did report him to Blogger & Google).  Often people hide behind anonymous comments or pseudonyms in their endorsement of rape culture--but it's there--you only need to read the comment thread of any controversial (or even non-controversial) topic to see it in action.

I've been thinking a lot about rape culture because there is an active conversation going on at Southern University in light of recent allegations and a federal complaint filed by Southern U students and a former assistant dean of students (whom I know--figure I should put that out there for the record) about the ways in which Southern U does not support students (largely women--the four students listed are all women) who have been sexually assaulted.

And here's what I know about rape.

When I entered UCSB as a freshman I didn't know anyone who had been raped.  When I left UCSB I knew several people (some of them close friends), who had been sexually assaulted.  In certain cases my friends and acquaintances did not know their attackers (but believed they were fellow UCSB students).  In some cases my friends and acquaintances were very familiar with their attacker since they were current or former boyfriends, men they were dating, men they went to a party with, friends of friends.

Since the time I have been at Southern U, nearly ever semester I hear a story about a student who has been sexually assaulted.  Either one of my students tells me a story about his/her friend, roommate, best friend, sorority sister, classmate who has been raped or I hear directly from the student about her sexually violation and why she is having problems concentrating in class, turning in assignments, coming to class at all.

The stories I hear from my Southern U students echo the stories I remember as an undergraduate at UCSB.  Twenty years have elapsed but very little has changed in terms of the lack of support that universities provide to students or, more important and more tellingly, a change in rape culture--a change in the attitudes about rape--about why men rape.  There has not been a cultural shift, not a significant cultural shift, that grants more respect to women, that doesn't sexualize them to the point of abjection and objectification, that offers the strongest condemnation and vilification for men who make jokes about rape or who in any way suggest that forcible sex and sexual violence is OK.

I'm tired.  As much as talking about racism wears me down, having to have THIS conversation twenty years later makes me sad, angry, and frustrated.  I'm, of course, not trying to pit racism against sexism--there's a fair amount of intersecting overlap between the two.  But in the ways in which I can point to progress on the institutional racism front (even though we have A LONG way to go) hearing about the potential cover-ups and the clear lack of support and the overwhelming evidence that rape culture is still alive and well makes me want to beat my head against my laptop and scream.

I don't have a solution.  But I know we need to change.  We need allies--we especially need MALE allies.  We need men to speak out against sexual violence in the US (and I haven't even touched on this issue internationally--as anyone who has been following the news in India the last month knows, this is a problem not just in the US but the world over).   We need to end rape culture.  Now.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Happy New Year Mixed Race America!

I had hoped to post on the first day of 2013, but posting a day late is better than not posting at all--and since I'm heading out of town to go to MLA (big academic conference for English & Lit & Language profs) and will have sporadic internet availability while in Boston, I figured I should post something that is both meaningful for a new year and something I've been wanting to post for quite some time now:

Dr. Maria Root's Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage.

Essentially, it's the Bill of Rights for Mixed Race America.

Because I've just finished a draft of my Tiger Woods chapter, I've been reading a variety of essays, articles, books, blogs, and esoterica about Tiger Woods and the many opinions that people have ab out Woods.  But I think Thea Lim of Racialicious sums it up best:

“Tiger Woods seems like a jackass. . . . But that’s no reason to deny him the right to self-identify.”


Bill of  Rights  
 People of Mixed Heritage 
Not to justify my existence in this world.
Not to keep the races separate within me.
          Not to justify my ethnic legitimacy.
                    Not to be responsible for people’s discomfort with
                        my physical or ethnic ambiguity.
 To identify myself differently than strangers  
     expect me to identify.
                    To identify myself differently than how my parents
                        identify me.
                         To identify myself differently than my brothers and
                    To identify myself differently in different
 To create a vocabulary to communicate about
    being multiracial or multiethnic.
                    To change my identity over my lifetime--and more
                       than once.
                    To have loyalties and identification with more
                       than one group of people.
                    To freely choose whom I befriend and love

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Tunnel Vision

It has been embarrassing how long it has been since I last wrote a blog post.  Well over a month.  Almost two.  In between the time I last wrote in this space, I've attended two conferences, gotten a nasty head cold, and--the reason I'm really not writing here--started to write my Tiger Woods chapter in earnest.  These are not excuses or rationales (well not entirely)--they're just a reality of how I've gotten tunnel vision.  Right now, it's all Tiger all the time.

And tunnel vision is what I want to write about right now.

It's easy to get tunnel vision, especially when one (like me) is immersed in a particular project.  I used to be the queen of multitasking, but increasingly (perhaps due to age? I find that after 40 almost everything gets attributed to "Oh, you're just getting older"--good to know that I have my aging body and mind to blame for things that pop up in the future) I find that I get tunnel vision when I embark upon certain projects, especially writing projects.

But I think there are other ways in which we get tunnel vision.  When we become so focused on a certain task, project, person, position that we lose sight of everything but the thing right in front of us.

Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association (NRA) is someone who I believe suffers from tunnel vision.

In a statement he made on behalf of the NRA yesterday, Mr. LaPierre blamed violent movies, songs, video games, and the lack of armed guards in schools for the tragic massacre in Newton, CT at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  I don't think I need to repeat the circumstances and details that led to the deaths of 28 people (and yes, I include both Nancy Lanza and Adam Lanza because their deaths are part of that tragedy).  Last week when news slowly unfolded about the shootings--when the final count was 20 children and 6 adults dead at the elementary school--I, like just about everyone else in the world who heard this news, felt numb and heartsick.

The NRA went silent for a week in the aftermath of the mass shooting: they took down their Facebook Page and went silent on Twitter.  And when they popped back up, they said they wanted to enter into "meaningful" conversation about how to avert this tragedy.

[Aside: It's interesting what going "silent" means in the day and age of rampant social media]

Apparently meaningful means putting an armed guard in every school in the nation and pointing a figure at multiple sources--except for gun owners, gun sellers, and gun manufacturers.  In other words, Wayne LaPierre and the NRA suffer from extreme tunnel vision.  They are so focused on protecting their "right to bear arms" ala Second Amendment that they cannot see anything beyond this single issue, remaining tone deaf (among other sensory deprivations) to what the nation is saying and feeling about gun violence.

Now, I know this doesn't seem like a topic for Mixed Race America.  But there are two things that I thought about when reading about the NRA's response and seeing the lines of people outside gun shops who want to buy up as many assault rifles as they can because they fear that the assault gun weapon ban may just pass in the new year.

1) LaPierre complained that the news media had demonized gun owners and rhetorically asked since when did "gun" become a bad word?  It strikes me that LaPierre's language echoes those of people who act defensively when they have been called out for racist acts.  When people get called out for racist acts or are trying to defend people/institutions/events that have been labeled as "racist," these folks often lament the demonization that they, the purported racists, are feeling.  They turn the tables, so to speak (or try to) by claiming to be the "victim" or the "demonized" object of some kind of irrational witch hunt or vendetta that is simply unfair.  In this way, LaPierre and the NRA are setting themselves up as a maligned entity at the mercy of the big bad news media who are unfairly portraying them.

2) Across the nation people have been stockpiling weapons, lining up to buy as many guns, particularly assault rifles, as they can.  And when the news shows footage of the people purchasing these weapons, they have predominantly been white men.  Sure, you see a few African American faces and a couple of women.  But by and large the people lined up and in the gun shops appear to be white.

[Aside 2: I saw "appear to be" because lets face it, I don't know really how they might identify or what their actual racial makeup is.  But I am fairly convinced that even if they are identifying as people of color they're living with white skin privilege in terms of how they look.]

And if we think about the mass shootings that have happened in the last six months: Aurora, CO, Oak Creek, WI, Portland, OR, and now Newtown, CT, what all the shooters had in common was that they were white men.  And I'm not saying that we should be racially profiling or targeting white men.  But if the shooters had all been African American or Latino or Asian Americans or Indigenous people, I KNOW we'd be hearing about the impact of their culture/ethnicity on their psyche and the ways in which their culture/ethnicity caused their violent outbursts.  In other words, race and ethnicity would be a factor that people would latch onto as a way to explain the violence.

Why aren't we doing this with the white men who have perpetrated these killings?  And do we think that one of those white men who lined up to buy guns around the nation may be a future mass murderer because there's something in white male culture that causes white men to embrace a culture of violence and because there's is something in white culture that allows white men to feel entitled and empowered and to feel it is their right to own guns and to do what they want with their guns?

Truthfully, this is a problem in our society--in U.S. society.  Our obsession with weapons and the second amendment.  Our "right" to bear arms.  And it crosses boundaries of race and class and gender and sexuality (I know of queer people of color who absolutely believe they need to be armed to protect themselves from the racist and homophobic throngs out there).  But I also think that it's striking to see these images of predominantly white men lining up to buy as many assault rifles as they can.

As for what I think, I'm going to leave you with this song that Cheryl Wheeler wrote after the school shootings at a middle school in Jonesboro, Arkansas in March 1998.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Cloud Atlas Review Part 3: Mixed race people save humanity

Here's the last installment of the epic 3 part review on the film version of Cloud Atlas.  I really want to stress that my critiques and observations in these reviews have been based entirely on the movie version and not on the novel by David Mitchell, which is epic and wondrous and luminous and the highest compliment I can pay this novel is that I couldn't put it down--I just wanted to live inside the novel for the time I was reading it.

If you want to read the first part of the review, click here, and you can also read Part 2 on the subject of Yellowface & Orientalism here.

Also, I'm going to be talking about the film in its entirety--so if you want to be able to either see the film or read the novel and not have any spoilers, then stop reading NOW.

OK, if you're still reading you either don't care about spoilers or you're familiar with the plot/structure/general narrative elements of Cloud Atlas.

[Aside 1: I hate to admit this, but even after all these years of blogging, I'm still tech-media challenged when it comes to certain things--for example, I can't figure out how to do that "Read More" function where you hide the majority of a post and readers have to click a link to read further.  Seems so smart, especially to prevent spoilers (sigh)--if there are any readers out there who can help me out in the comment section, I'd be most grateful]

Some people have asked me if I liked Cloud Atlas, and it's hard for me to say whether I enjoyed the film because there was such a richness to it in terms of things I wanted to critique and study.  Of course visually it's gorgeous, and the schmaltzy-sentimental part of me resonates with the theme of transcendent love that moves throughout the ages.  But most of all I was fascinated (and in some cases appalled) by the representation and handling of race and racial difference.

[click here for the website where I got this chart so you can see it in a larger scale]

If you look at the image, above, you will see that among the most "evil" characters are several who appear to be "white."  Certainly the characters that Hugo Weaving plays, with the exception of his Neo-Seoul persona, are all evil white men (and one evil white woman, and actually a green evil devil).

Whereas the characters in the film who triumph over their baser natures--who stand up and do the right thing, who put themselves in harm's way for another person, are often characters who are not white or who have some other minorizited identity (like being gay).

In the vignette that takes place in the 1970s (San Francisco) there is a scene where Luisa Rey (played by Halle Berry) and Napier (Keith David's character) are running away from the assassin Bill Smoke (played by Hugo Weaving).  They run into a sweatshop where they encounter a Latina woman (played in brownface by the Korean actress Doona Bae), who doesn't understand what they want until Rey speaks to her in Spanish (thus alerting audiences to the fact that Berry is playing a Latina woman or a woman with Latin American heritage).  Subsequently when Smoke comes looking for Rey and Napier, he encounters the Latina woman and he calls her a wetback before killing her dog.  So Smoke is both a racist and a dog killer.

[Luisa Rey & Napier about to flee from Smoke]

Smoke meets his demise at the hands of this unnamed Latina woman--who bludgeons him to death with a huge wrench, all the while yelling at him for killing her dog and then telling him that she doesn't like to be called a wetback.

The takeaway from this scene is that being a racist doesn't pay (or killing someone's pet).  And time and again, we see this--that there are people of color who will "save" others who are not of their "tribe" so to speak.  This happens in the mid-19th C. story on board a schooner where Jim Sturgess's character, Adam Ewing, is saved by Autua, a Polynesian slave.  And in the post-Apocalyptic story, Meronym (played by Halle Berry) and Zachry (played by Tom Hanks)--where both save one another (and Zachry's sister).

[Is Meronym making eyes at the one-eyed Zachry?]

The film is framed by an old and scarred Zachry narrating about his life to an unseen audience.  The last scene of the film has Zachry concluding his story around a fire to a group of young children, most of who are mixed race and multiracial, of varying hues and ethnicities.  One of them calls Zachry "grandpa" (or the post-apocalyptic equivalent--I can't quite recall now) and we realize that the light skinned (white?) Zachry and the darker skinned (black?) Meronym have married/mated/consummate their relationship in the Biblical sense, and have produced mixed race children and grandchildren--progeny that are the only remnants of humanity since the film concludes on a planet that is NOT earth.

Which means: mixed race people save humanity.


I mean, the filmmakers really want to go down the path of making mixed race people into the ultimate exception of exceptional narratives--that they are the racially hybrid answer to saving what's left of the earth's population?  That the Time magazine future woman could actually be part of the Cloud Atlas narrative?

I guess what I mean is that when I think about the kinds of narratives that we have about multiracial and mixed race people, particularly in terms of any futuristic accounts, it's that they are the saviors of humanity.  And what I think that fails to account for are the ways in which mixed race and multiracial people get to be people--should be seen for the humanity that they carry in and for themselves and not as the answer or antidote to apocalyptic scenarios or end-of-the-world crises.

But perhaps I'm too cynical and too analytical--would love to hear anyone else weigh in if they've seen the end of the film.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


Despite what all my friends who follow Nate Silver's blog were saying, I was still nervous last night and couldn't settle down until after 11:00pm when all the major networks called Ohio for Obama.  And even then, I couldn't be sure until after Romney's concession speech.  And by that point, I was all in and had to stay up to hear President Obama address the throng of supporters in Chicago.  If you missed it, well, here it is:

Besides Obama's victory, there were many other things to feel cheered and heartened by if you are a liberal-progressive Democrat--the passage of gay marriage laws in Maine and Minnesota, the defeat of two different Republican candidates who made beyond tone-deaf remarks where rape is concerned, and the election of Tammy Baldwin, the Senate's first openly queer person.  The Atlantic's Ta-Nehesi Coates has an aptly titled essay, "Hippes wander into the lion's den, maul lions" that you should check out.

[UPDATE: 11/8/12:  A commenter, jestingjousts, points out that Minnesota did not pass a gay marriage law; they prevented a law from being passed that would have defined marriage between one man and one woman.  Also, Washington and Maryland passed laws that excluded same-sex couples from marrying--for more go to Freedom to Marry]

Finally, for a comedic take and some good old fashioned MC Hammer dancing, here's Key & Peele:

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

November 6--Election Day--VOTE FOR OBAMA

So it probably goes without saying that a blog called Mixed Race America is going to support President Barack Obama's re-election and wants to URGE anyone who has not yet voted to please GO VOTE FOR PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA.

As a dyed-in-the-wool-blue-to-my-core-Democrat, I am not going to bother rehearsing why I think voting for President Obama is the sane choice.  If you are a dyed-in-the-wool-Republican, I'm probably not going to convince you that he's the right choice.

But if there are any undecided voters out there, especially undecided white votes, then Chris Rock has a special message for YOU:

I'm hoping it's not a nail biter--I'm hoping we go blue again, even if (sadly) my own southern state changes to red (sigh).  LETS GO DEMS!