Thursday, February 02, 2006

Not a Real Minority

I'm exhausted. I'm confused and angry and hurt and bitter but most of all I'm just exhausted. Two days ago, the main researcher in my lab was discussing the new recruits for the program with the department secretary when the subject of 'minority spots' came up. (Incidentally, for all you minorities out there who thought you could still hide under the relative euphemism of 'affirmative action' -- no, they reall do think of it as the 'minority spot'. Even though the grant that pays the stipend for the person hired via this route was created by the minority office and was designed to increase the representation of underrepresented minorities, it is not "affirmative action"; they still see it as the 'darkies' gettin' a freebie). Now, everyone and their cat is a liberal in this lab; the lab hasn't seen a conservative in years and the other day we were joking that the PI has a right-dar that discourages the right-wingers from applying for a rotation through her lab. We have the requisite Bush-hater. The several do-gooders. The rambunctious activist gender-bender. And of course, there's the token 'coloureds'. So, I asked about the minority position -- asking specifically whether one of the recruits, a person of Asian descent, would find this grant applicable to them. The response was no, the grant was only for 'underrepresented' minorities. And then this gem: "When an Oriental person walks into the room, the truth is that people don't see them as a minority. That's just the way it is." I felt my blood pressure rise. My jaw clenched as I've come to realize it does when I'm faced with something I know is insensitive -- a nervous tick I can't seem to control. I wish I could say I threw my hands up in disgust, tossed a chair, let out my inner Bridget Lee and went all Kung Phooey on that ass. God only knows how often I replayed the exchange in my head since then. Instead, infuriatingly, I interjected with a retort about the model minority myth, countered with the argument that it was unfair to paint Asians as always academically perfect, and backed away from the boss' office. Asian Americans have truly put ourselves in a bind. Many of us seem so eager to assimilate that we no longer see a problem with the language the mainstream uses to oppress as. (Re: yesterday, another person, another lab -- this time a woman of Asian descent off-handedly referred to our collective community as 'Orientals'. As if there were nothing wrong with the term. As if this were the natural order of things. As if I would not, could not, find anything wrong with the term. Re also: the only Asian supermarket I've found gleefully titles itself the 'Oriental-American Grocery Store'.) We may be 'overrepresented' in science-related fields but we are grossly misunderstood. We are typecast, token-ized, petted and prodded as the model minority. Not quite oppressed and yet not quite equal. An oddity in a sea of oddities. How many times have I heard a researcher be referred to by her race rather than her research? (Yes, that paper was published by that Japanese lab. Her name is so bizarre.) When we're not real minorities, our funny names wouldn't matter. If we weren't real minorities, I wouldn't be placed into situations at work when I feel the biting disgust of racial insensitivity. If I weren't a real minority, I would never have to ask myself if it was worth my job to say something about the racism I face at work.


Blogger James said...

There is nothing wrong with pulling your boss to the side later and saying, "Hey, since I know you care deeply about diversifying this lab with the most qualified candidates, perhaps your use of the epithet 'Oriental' does not assist that laudable goal."

Because you never have to put up with open, unchallenged bigotry in your work environment. Like disgusting body odor in the cubicle next door, or hazardous chemical odors wafting from the R&D lab, open, unchallenged racism inhibits worker productivity, and on that basis alone, should be eliminated.

2/06/2006 12:15:00 PM  
Anonymous tekanji said...

I think my brain exploded at the hypocrisy of using the term "Oriental" in a sentence that was aimed at illustrating how people (read: white people, ie. real people) don't see Asians as a minority.

Times like these make me think that Edward Said's Orientalism, or at the very least his introduction to it, should be mandatory reading in classrooms.

2/06/2006 12:56:00 PM  
Blogger leeherrick said...

The issue of naming and unfamiliarity reminds me an infuriating issue here in Fresno, California recently. Fresno happens to have one of the highest Hmong populations per capita in the U.S. Many of my students are Hmong, and I teach in a program where the curriculum centers on Southeast Asian literature.

Recently, there was a lawsuit in which a Hmong family sued a cemetery for burying a family member in a used gravesite with bones left from a different deceased person. In addition to the egregious and inexplicable irresponsibility of doing such a thing, they also created problems for the family because of their religious beliefs. (Sorry for this long post, but I'm getting to the point).

At any rate, the family sued. They "won" an insulting amount of money...peanuts, really. Here's the point---the newscaster pronounced Hmong by saying "Mung," when it should be pronounced "Mawng." In a city where Hmong Americans are as common as can be, a network news anchor can't pronounce the name? And we expect a jury of their "peers" (yeah, right) to render a fair decision?

I called the news station and told the producer my point. He apologized. That was it.

All I can say is that it gets tiring, Jenn. Of course you know that. But I say fight on. I say Gar and James are right that it's good to know that others are with you. It's gets tiring. But the many individuals out there, as well as the many organziations, will hopefully keep at it and make things a little better. The things you do matter. Right? And besides, I like to remind myself---I know that I get rabid now and then. Somebody's got to do it around here. Keep on.

2/07/2006 01:38:00 AM  
Anonymous Rachel S said...

The other thing I would wonder about was the gender of the person because Asian American and Asian women don't seem to be overrepresented in science.

I had to run stats on the race and gender make up of the professors for the multicultural affairs office at a large university a few years ago. First, I looked at gender alone; then I looked at race alone. Finally, I divided people into race gender groups (black women, black men, Latins, Latinos, Asian Men, Asian Women, and so on.), and the percentage of Asian women professors was really low (if I remember correctly Asian women were like 25% of the Asian professors).

Just a side note, but I think a relevant point.....I didn't break it down by discipline, but I suspect the gap transcends disciplines.

2/07/2006 09:59:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

I'm certain that Asian Americana is fairly underrepresented in comparison to "foreign" Asians in higher education, but the problem is that part of the racism Asians face is that we're all lumped into one category. And any statistic that suggested that Asian women are underrepresented in comparison to Asian men doesn't surprise me at all.

And yet, we're not a minority and there is no effort to equalize our representation in higher education.

2/08/2006 11:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yoo-hoo, those grants for underrepresented minorities are usually funded through the NIH. Take it up with the NIH and your elected representatives. If this truly is university money and not university running an NIH training grant, well, take it up with the dean.

And the truth is, when a Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, or Pakistani-descent biomedical researcher walks into a biomedical research milieu, he/she is not seen as a minority. In the law school or the business school or the medieval studies department, yes. But not in biomedical research.

Why can't the lab say "Nakamura" or "Saito" or whatever the competing lab director's name is? Not that hard. Hard is full name of Thai or South Indian - that seems likely to be abbreviated. (I worked once with a South Indian postdoc with last name Venkatasubramanian - 8 syllables - he laughed when we dutifully called him Dr. Venkatasubramanian, and suggested we call him Dr.Venkat. His first name was equally lengthy, btw.)


2/08/2006 10:39:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...


And the truth is, when a Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, or Pakistani-descent biomedical researcher walks into a biomedical research milieu, he/she is not seen as a minority. In the law school or the business school or the medieval studies department, yes. But not in biomedical research.

It's troubling that you say that because you indicate a lack of ability to distinguish between numerical majority and treatment as a racial minority. For one thing, what are the numbers of people of East Asian descent from Asia compared to those from America?

In actuality, the number of AMERICAN Asians in higher education isn't as overwhelming as you would think. Asians represent about 9% of students receiving master's in S&E and again about 9% of students receiving doctoral degrees in S&E. ( Asian Americans represent about 5% of the population.

I think there's an overwhelming stereotype that Asians are massively swarming the biological sciences, when really this is hardly the case.

Moreover, while we are certainly in the science industry in numbers slightly greater than our population statistics, that does not mean we "are not minorities" -- we face quite a bit of discrimination in the science & education fields. To imply that when we walk into our room, our skin bleaches and we're just "one of the crowd" suggests that we, Asian Pacific Islanders, face no discrimination in the S&E field. I think the very fact that people see us as an indistinguishable mass of 'Others', is proof enough that we are still a minority despite our numbers and that needs to be addressed.

Also, consider the 2000 Census which showed Asian Americans, when split by nationality and ethnicity, many were actually grossly underrepresented in higher education, such as Cambodian or Hmong Asians.

As far as your comment on names? I don't even know what you're trying to say.

2/10/2006 07:11:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

Incidentally, on that site (which I'm now perusing for fun), Asians have a disproportionately small percentage of whome pursue a career in education following receiving their doctorates.

Why is that? Could it be because as many who choose not to enter academics are also facing a glass ceiling preventing them from entering academics?

2/10/2006 07:15:00 PM  
Blogger shannon said...

I have nothing useful to say, but thanks for bringing the knowledge.

2/12/2006 11:15:00 PM  

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