Wednesday, February 08, 2006

T-shirts, Radio, and Racism

I think if there were any single word to describe the modern Asian American activist movement, it would be "radio". We seem to have unquantifiable ability to mobilize in response to racist shock jocks on the radio -- almost to the point where I find it hard to get enthused about Adam Corolla, our latest movement. Awhile ago, Adam Carolla aired a segment in which he mocked the Asian Excellence Awards and made 'Ching Chong'-type caricatures. Hilarious, I know. Within a couple of weeks, the entire online community mobilized to try and get an apology from Carolla, and of course, it has been met largely with resistance from Carolla's puppeteers. Having been more involved in previous campaigns to get apologies from other shock jock radio personalities who incorporate racism and hate into their on-air sketches, I'm too jaded to get involved in this one. Again, the show's handlers will wait us out, the enthusiasm will fizzle -- perhaps we'll eventually get some weak apology, perhaps not, but ultimately Carolla's career will continue because there's far too much of a market for racism among Carolla's non-minority audience for all of radio broadcasting to turn him away. Most importantly, whether Carolla is terminated or not, incidents like these will continue. Next month, we'll all be mobilizing around another radio personality who, fearing no consequences, makes another anti-Asian joke. Despite all this, I encourage all of you to support the anti-Carolla movement. Even if you're cynical, it's important to maintain a strong response to racism in any of its forms. Here's the email information where you can contact the folks who might make a difference (courtesy of Angry Asian Man): Adam Carolla: Dave Dameshek: Rachel Perry: Ozzie Castillo: Here is CBS Radio's corporate contact info: CBS RADIO1515 BroadwayNew York, NY 10036212-846-3939 Joel Hollander Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, CBS Radio 212-846-3939 Dana L. McClintock Senior Vice President, CBS Communications Group 212-975-1077 Then there's the online campaign against Spencer's Gifts, demanding that Spencer's pull a series of anti-Asian shirts reminiscent of those marketed by Abercrombie and Fitch. Here's an image taken from one of the shirts: Spencer's has responded by saying they will discontinue the line, but this doesn't mean they are pulling the shirts from the stores. A couple of things about this campaign -- these shirts are nothing new. Spencer's has sold shirts like these for months; I remember seeing these shirts long before the campaign launched. I guess it speaks again of my own jaded-ness that I merely spat in disgust and walked away. After all, Spencer's isn't exactly known for it's political correctness; every other item in that store objectifies women. Even though the online petition and letter-writing seems to have generated a minor victory in the discontinuation of these shirts, it has generated a significant backlash from those who see absolutely nothing wrong with a little slanty-eyed caricature of Asian people. A Harvard student (there's a tuition fee that's being wasted), Shai D. Bronshtein ’09, wrote an editorial defending the Spencer's t-shirts. It was actually this editorial that made me angry -- more so than the shirt itself, because it highlights the ignorance of the White mainstream. Take this gem from the editorial:

It seems ridiculous to call the shirt racist in and of itself. The argument, of course, is that it perpetuates stereotypes. Do you know what often perpetuates stereotypes? Truth. Believe it or not, many Asians tend to have eyes that are narrower than most people of Caucasian background (hereafter white people). Thus, there may perhaps be a grain of truth behind the shirts, even if they are “offensive.”
The shirts are, indeed, racist. They take an existing race-based stereotype and depict and celebrate them as humourous. It is true that Asians have almond-shaped eyes, but that is no reason to defend a derogatory mockery of physical and racial characteristics. Also, it's hard to imagine that any Asian person still sports a queue like the one the cartoon wears, and certainly there are other stereotypes depicted in that cartoon which, while true, are all used to create a demeaning caricature of an "Asian Man". To shamelessly appropriate from Angry Asian Man, that's racist.
And so we must distinguish between racism and offensiveness. Every day we see things that offend us. Yet just because I find something distasteful, backward, or inane does not mean it is racist, immoral, or unlawful. Racism implies a malicious hatred of a race. Making light of a cultural aspect of a group, in this case with a horrid pun, does not necessarily constitute a malicious attack on that racial group.
There is no reason to distinguish between racism and offensiveness. While something that is offensive is not necessarily racist, all racism should be considered offensive. These t-shirts do not "make light of a cultural aspect of a group", these t-shirts make light of a racial aspect of a group (unless I somehow had the cultural choice to choose my almond eyes and yellow skin?) Cultural mockeries are distasteful, to be sure, but when linked to race-based caricatures, it becomes racism: a racial hatred or disrespect of a particular racial or ethnic group based solely upon their identity as "Different". Racism doesn't have to be malicious in nature for it to be constituted as racism. To argue that would argue that only hate crimes is racism, only the KKK racist. We all know this not to be true and that, indeed, the very maliciousness of racism is that it occurs daily even by those who "mean well". Dehumanizing me is racist. Laughing at a racial humour because you find the targets of the humour unworthy of basic dignity and respect is racist. Fearing the unknown minority community is racist. Prejudice based on stereotypes is racist. You don't have to hate a person in order to use racial information to discriminate against them.

If this shirt told people to stone Asians, then it would be something with which to take issue. However, it very benignly tells us to hang out with our Asian friends. I wholeheartedly support more hanging out with “wang out’s.”

And this is where that $30,000 a year is being mis-used. Because, of course, a slogan that says "Hang Out With Your Wang Out" is telling us to hang out with our Asian friends. Right next to that Long Duk Dong caricature up there. What is this man? Stupid? Of course, Bronshtein then goes on to tell us to shut up and just deal. Bottom line, he doesn't have to care about an oppressed group, so he doesn't. His privilege allows him to exist in the rosy-coloured world of the Harvard ivory tower, wear his racist t-shirts, and not have to think about how he is propagating a cycle of racist hatred and bigotry against the silent, invisible minority of Asian Americana. (If you think Bronshtein needs to be told what's what, here's his email address: Ultimately, it is this kind of thing that gets me upset. Not the t-shirts, not the radio hosts, but the everyday men and women who defend that published hate speech. It reminds me how pervasive deliberate racial ignorance is. If I had my way, we would devise a movement to combat that racism, and not just the Carollas and Spencer's of of our times.


Anonymous Dora said...

Racism doesn't have to be malicious in nature for it to be constituted as racism. To argue that would argue that only hate crimes is racism, only the KKK racist. We all know this not to be true and that, indeed, the very maliciousness of racism is that it occurs daily even by those who "mean well".

Exactly, exactly. That's one of the most important things to realize about racism, and yet it's one of the most difficult for people to understand if they aren't targets of racism themselves (i.e., white people). There are too many people who focus on racism as being a single action instead of a pervasive attitude. The result of that is, if the action they can observe isn't egregious -- a T-shirt, a stupid radio host -- they're convinced that it isn't an indication of a racist attitude.

(BTW, I found you recently through the Carnival of Feminists, and your blog and your links have been really helpful for me in finding more political Asian American voices.)

2/08/2006 01:35:00 PM  
Anonymous tekanji said...

Ugh, the Adam Carolla thing was just... ugh. Did you see the deluge of responses on Hypen's blog? It was disgusting; "get a sense of humor, you yellows!" is what I would label most of the commenters as saying. I commented once with a rebuttal, but I didn't have the heart to be one of the lonely voices arguing against racism.

The result of that is, if the action they can observe isn't egregious... they're convinced that it isn't an indication of a racist attitude.

That reminds me of a story that my cousin told me about his first (and only) year at Reed College. The RA and some of his buddies (all white) were apparently big into making shows of how enlightened they were about racism. So one day my cousin passes them in the hall and one of them says to his friends, "Hey guys, let me show you my Chinese face!" and proceeds to pull the edges of his eyes. They all laugh. And, of course, when my cousin tried to explain why it was offensive and racist they didn't get it. At all.

2/08/2006 09:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This post could feature in the Carnival of the Lame-Assed, along with some of Pam Spaulding's (Pam's House Blend) Freeper samplings. Who the f would show up in public in one of those t-shirts?


2/08/2006 10:42:00 PM  
Blogger Van said...

cheers to you, thanks for reposting the Spencer and Carolla campaigns (I'm the author of
Loved how you deconstructed the Harvard article. God that infuriated me.

2/13/2006 01:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't find Adam Carolla's radio show to be offensive racially. It's a comedy show. It makes fun of just about everything: people, ideas, places etc. It doesn't focus on bringing down one particular concept. Comedy makes light of the world. There is no real reason to take anything in this world seriously. If we take everything seriously we will remain miserable. I think the answer is to love yourself and to love everyone around you. By loving and accepting yourself completely you will be a living example and everyone will respect, admire, and want to be near you.

4/13/2006 12:55:00 PM  

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