Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Racism and Asian-Americans

As an adoptee, I had grown up with white parents in a white town in rural Connecticut. My only knowledge of Asian culture was Chinese food and, when I was growing up, a number of meetings of adopted children that still haunt me, though I realize that my parents had my best interests at heart. They had taken me to these meetings for connection, but what I remember was the disconnect: the awkwardness of forced interaction between children who thought of themselves as white and didn’t want to be shown otherwise. We hated being categorized as adoptees, or I did and I read those feelings into the others, who to me did not seem friendly, or familiar, only more strange for their yellow faces.

The author, Matthew Salesses, goes on to discuss how he has dealt with being an Asian in a white country and especially the racism that he has experienced.  For example:

--- The truth is, racism toward Asians is treated differently in America than racism toward other ethnic groups. This is a truth all Asian Americans know. While the same racist may hold back terms he sees as off-limits toward other minorities, he will often not hesitate to call an Asian person a chink, as Jeremy Lin was referred to, or talk about that Asian person as if he must know karate, or call him Bruce Lee, or consider him weak or effeminate, or so on.

--- Racist jokes were told with alarming frequency for a school billed the “most liberal in the South,” and I was friends with two groups: one mostly white, mostly Southerners in the same dorm; the other mostly black, with whom I played pick-up basketball. They joked without censor. I had a girlfriend whose aunt and uncle lived in North Carolina, and when we went to visit, they would say that at least I wasn’t black, often before some racist diatribe. This seemed the predominant sentiment then. At least I wasn’t ____.(1)

--- Both Harvard and Princeton are currently under investigation on charges of racism toward Asians, whose grades and SAT scores, on average, must be higher than those of other races in order to gain admissions. Many Asian Americans are responding by marking the box on applications that declines to indicate race, something I cannot help but read symbolically. I confess that I would give my daughter that exact advice, in admissions: not to reveal her race. The accusation is that schools have capped their “quotas” of Asian students, and this is why Asians need to score higher, because they are competing amongst themselves for a limited number of spots. Most Asians accept the unwritten rules, pushing themselves or their children harder. But why should they, in a country that prides itself on equal opportunity?

This last sentence really hits home.  If I may indulge in some racism (and making generalizations about people based on race IS racism), Asians are widely regarded as having an excellent work ethic(2), especially when it comes to school.  But why?  Part of it may well come from the Chinese imperial examination system(3), but I suggest that much of it also comes from both a desire of the home culture to compete with the more "advanced" West and, more importantly, a belief amongst immigrant Asians that the path the success and acceptance, especially in America, is through proving one's merit by hard work and academic achievement.(4)

And what a moral quandary this is!  What ought a person say when he is praised for his race's GOOD qualities?  "You people are so hard-working!"  "You people are so polite!"  "You people are so respectful!"

You people...

I detest the idea of my daughter growing up with a chip on her shoulder, convinced that she's the target of a daily, incessant barrage of racist slurs, "microaggressions", &c.  On the other hand, if Salesses is to be believed (and I most assuredly do believe him), that is very likely the world she will live in.(5)  What ought I to do to prepare her for it?  Is talking to her enough?  Where's the line between making her aware... and making her paranoid?

For now, thank heavens, my worries are a little more pedestrian: "Is coffee in the morning bad for her?" or "Look, can we watch something other than 'Peppa Pig' for a change???" And, more importantly, my worries are more than offset by simply enjoying time with my little girl.


(1) I cannot resist telling this story.  Years ago, I briefly dated a Chinese girl (she was born, educated and had lived most of her life in China).  She early on told me point-blank that her family would greatly have preferred that she date / marry a Chinese boy but, as they are in somewhat short supply here in No. Carolina, a white boy would do.  They were absolutely dead-set against a black or Latino boy.

(2) This same girl once boasted to me that, "We (Chinese) work harder than anybody else in the world."

(3) "This system allowed anyone who passed an examination to become a government officer, a position which would bring wealth and honor to the whole family. The Chinese imperial examination system started in the Sui dynasty. Over the following centuries the system grew until finally almost anyone who wished to become an official had to prove his worth by passing written government examinations. The practice of meritocracy still exists today in the Chinese cultural sphere, including ChinaTaiwanSingapore and so forth."

(4) This has by no means always worked.  Until the post-war period, even well-educated Chinese and Chinese-Americans often found work outside "Chinatowns" only as laborers.

(5) There is good reason to believe that things have gotten better for Asians in American and continue to improve.


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