Tuesday, July 04, 2006

In Search of Malcolm Yellow

A conservative Asian American once suggested to me that the problem with Asian Americans was that we didn't have a Martin Luther King, Jr. We didn't have an Al Sharpton or a Reverend Jesse Jackson to unite our community, be our voice to mainstream media, and regalvanize our politics. In light of the political apathy ever-present in the Asian American community, what we really needed, he said, was a Malcolm X. Although I initially balked at such a suggestion, a couple of weeks ago, I started wondering if perhaps there was some merit to the argument. After all, while we have several notable Asian Americans in government, not many of them are household names. Even fewer have been vocal advocates of the Asian American community, speaking directly to us about our issues. Most have intervened when we kick up a fuss, but, for the sake of their own political futures, refuse to take the initiative in speaking out against injustices within the Asian American community. Coupled with the lack of quality representation of Asian Americans in government, as a community, we still remain divided and loathe to participate in political issues. A large segment of the Asian American community strongly advocate in favour of the model minority myth, distinguishing between "beneficial" and "harmful" stereotypes. Meanwhile, the divide between Asian American men and Asian American women seems to grow larger every year. I remember a friend of mine once commenting that the Asian American political movement had largely been a movement centering around the story of Asian American women; of course, I beg to differ, arguing that the politicization of Asian Americans had its roots in the empowerment of male labourers from Asia, and that sexism within the Asian American community remains unaddressed. Even the very pan-Asian identity that ushered us to the "political strength" we enjoy today is under daily attack, both from within and without. And yet, these divides seem to melt away whenever an issue of seeming overwhelming importance is faced by the Asian American (youth) community. It took a mere 20 minutes to 2 hours (depending on who you ask) for Asian American students to mobilize a synchronous, nationwide protest of Abercrombie and Fitch (using an informal network of university student organization contacts and powered only by email and AOL Instant Messaging) back in 2002 in response to the "Two Wongs Can Make it White" t-shirt. In 2004, Asian Americans nearly unilaterally backed a protest of Details magazine following its "Gay or Asian" feature. And last March (2005), we were seamlessly united behind a campaign to remove the Miss Jones in the Morning show from the NYC's Hot97 radio station after the airing of the unflinchingly racist and insensitive "Tsunami Song". In short, we didn't have a problem uniting, and when we did, we could be a force to be reckoned with. So why does this occur so infrequently? Imagine, then a figurehead to take the reins of Asian Americana and direct our political will into a series of unified efforts, designed to bring about the equality and civil liberties we so desire. Imagine a leader who could mute the dissonance within our community, who could take advantage of the network forged by students in the Abercrombie & Fitch debacle and divert us to issues of even greater political importance. Imagine a person who could energize us, give us the rhetoric we needed to unite, and motivate us with hope of realistic political gains. Imagine the one Asian American who could make us all believe. And so, I found myself in search of Malcolm Yellow. I began to imagine Malcolm Yellow; tried to get to know who he might be. Would Malcolm Yellow be a Chinese American, a Filipino American, a Korean American, or an Asian Indian? Would members of one ethnicity follow the lead of man born of another? Would a first-generation or issei Asian American best represent Asian Americans, or should we rally behind a second or even third-generation person? Should he be Christian? Buddhist? Muslim? Mormon? Atheist? Would he be a man of means or one who grew up in a poverty-stricken community, thereby challenging the model minority myth? And sexuality -- would Malcolm have to be a straight, heterosexual man or could he be gay, bisexual or questioning (reminding us to include the often silent and invisible LGBTQ members of the Asian American community)? Hell, why did we have to have a Malcolm Yellow, anyways? Would Malcolmina be able to wield the same clout within the Asian American community as her counterpart, Mr. Malcolm Yellow? The problem deepened as I realized that not only was I unable to imagine the perfect candidate for Malcolm Yellow, but I began to wonder whether it was even acceptable to attempt to emulate African American politics in the first place. If Asian Americans are still struggling with defining ourselves and our community, it would best serve our politics to forge our own path, unique from both White and Black narratives. After all, we are one of the first communities to take advantage of cyberspace so effectively. We are a community born of immigration, struggling with issues unique only to Asian Americans; how could a model of social movements applied to communities with completely different histories to our own be applicable to us in any way? A Malcolm Yellow (besides being a rather disturbing image in and of itself) was not going to help the Asian American community. We are too fragmented, too at risk of bursting at the seams, and too apathetic to listen to a leader who hasn't even yet bothered to step forward. We cannot spend our time waiting for him to arrive. Instead, what the Asian American community needs is to re-energize ourselves around issues that we can all agree still plague us. We need to create a manifesto of sorts; a quintessential primer of Asian American issues that will define for all the dissonant elements within our community who and what we really are. Despite our differences, we need to eliminate any doubt as to what ties us together, and agree upon some common problems we are collectively trying to fix. And, without a doubt, there are issues that I think all Asian Americans, regardless of class, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation can agree need addressing:

  • The Glass Ceiling According to the 80-20 initiative, statistics compiled from several federally-funded studies show that Asian Americans have a significantly lower chance of being promoted to middle-management compared to many other groups, despite comparable professional qualifications.

    Being denied management-level representation keeps us largely marginalized in professional and academic circles, unable to address other problems of disenfranchisement and political discrimination. And it goes without saying that it is unfair for Asian Americans to be denied the basic American right to pursue capitalistic success just like everyone else, seemingly only because of our race.
  • Mental Health Asian American women over 65 and between 15-24 have the highest rate of suicides for their age-group in this country, but have been found to be 25% less likely than Whites and 50% less likely than Blacks to seek outpatient care. Asian American teenaged girls have the highest rates of depression of all racial and gender groups in their age-group, and Asian American college students experience depressive symptoms at rates far surpassing their White classmates. When we do seek treatment, we are significantly more likely to be misdiagnosed as problem-free, or even if we are diagnosed properly, are usually unable to find "culturally-sensitive" mental healthcare that addresses particular issues facing Asian Americans (for example, at Cornell University, I was part of a group that found that Asian American students diagnosed with depression were frequently counseled to change majors despite this being a much more formidable problem for Asian American students compared to students of other cultures). This leaves depression and suicide as one of the largest silent killers of Asian Americans in general, and Asian American women, in particular.
  • Physical Healthcare Very little data has been collected on diseases that seem to be a particular problem within Asian American communities, and therefore, preventative information is rarely distributed in a way that focuses on our community. Cardiovascular disease is the single largest killer of Asian American men and women, and we are at greater risk for strokes than the White population. Middle-aged Asian American women also have a high risk of developing osteoporosis due to a common lactose intolerance and slender bone structure.
  • Substance Abuse Alcoholism seems to have an extremely high incidence in the Asian American community, however, very little data has been collected on this subject, therefore making hard data difficult to find. However, because the "Asian Flush" phenomenon is so widely researched, there seems to be a deeply-held societal belief that Asian Americans don't drink a lot of alcohol, since they develop such a quick "allergic reaction". Contrary to this fact, preliminary data (presented at an old ECAASU conference I attended) suggested that many Asian Americans struggle with undiagnosed alcohol abuse.
  • Political Representation In 2004, 83% of registered APIA voters voted in the presidential elections, however, there are fewer than 15 Asian American representatives in national politics. As a community, we must work even harder to increase the number of registered APIA voters nationwide and encourage more Asian Americans to pursue careers in government and politics.
  • Media It goes without saying that most online Asian American politicos are most interested in fixing the media representation problem. After all, with a plethora of stereotypes plaguing our community, and the accessibility of pop culture to a largely youth-powered community, media seems is one of the biggest hot-button topics for APIAs. Therefore, I'm not going to go into too much detail about questions of stereotypes.
  • Identity Developing an identity; this seems to be the best point to end this short list on. After all, it was in this vein that this post was written -- with such a fragmented community, Asian Americans must spend time thinking about how to unify ourselves into a message that can be embraced by all within our ranks. We need to hear from everyone in the APIA community, including those largely silent: ethnicities beyond the "Big Three" and sexualities that differ from our implicitly heteronormative stances. We need to spend time considering who we are, what we stand for, and what we can do to change things for the better. To that end, we must encourage the further development of Asian American studies (no college or university should be able to do without at least a course, if not a minor or even a major offered in this field) and the genre of Asian American literature. Most importantly, we shouldn't be able to come across Asian Americans who still don't know what being Asian American is all about -- every Asian American should have the tools readily available to decide for themselves how they fit into the larger scope of being APIA.
This list is only a fraction of the issues that could be contained in the final Asian American manifesto, but it contains a number of issues that extend beyond the scope of a t-shirt and a radio station. While it is important that we not forget to address issues like these, I think we need to spend more time as a community using our online clout to consider ourselves from a larger scale. Ultimately, we need to develop a better sense of who we are, as a group that, from its nascence, found a bond based more closely on collective treatment rather than collective history. Not to be too cliched (although, of course, quoting a Kevin Costner movie is about as cliched as one can really get), if we build it, Malcolm Yellow will come. But perhaps, by then, we won't even need him anymore.

Cross-posted: APA for Progress


Blogger Elayne said...

Wow, great post. I think the closest we get to a Malcolm Yellow type of public figure are activist celebrities like George Takei and Margaret Cho, but activist celebs are really a whole different category than people who make politics their livelihood. And of course folks like Inouye are a bit of a disappointment...

7/04/2006 08:14:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post. Very interesting to read. In terms of the discussion around identity - I want to ask who envision as being included under "Asian-American". As far as I can tell, the way the term is used in the United States, it seems to refer to East Asians, ocassionally to South-East Asians, rarely to South Asians, and about never includes Central Asians and Middle Easterners. How to get around this? And how to reconcile a whole range of issues, racializations and problems of people who fit under the geographical designation of "Asian"?


7/04/2006 09:50:00 AM  
Blogger Jenn said...

Thanks for reading, Elayne! I think activist celebs are good at charging the community for some issues, but I'm jaded enough to believe that those celebs are still trying to feed them and their own. For example, as much as Parry Shen was advocating Asian American politicization, he still has a few Long Duk Dong roles under his belt.

May, as far as I'm concerned, Asian American refers to the entire pan-Asian identity (i.e., East, South East, South Asian and Asian Indian). I have never, in my experience, seen an inclusion of Central or Middle Eastern Asian -- only because there hasn't been a historical link between our communities. I think the problem of this dissonance is that, in our "home countries", there is nothing tying these identities together. e.g. A native Korean feels only hatred and resentment towards their former oppressors, the Japanese.

To me, I think the experience of immigration changes that and helps transform dissonance ethnicities into a single cohesive whole, but it doesn't come without some attention. I think each individual ethnic group in America needs to start reaching out to other Asian Americans, put the bullshit nationalism stuff aside to some degree, and find common discriminations and prejudices that affect us all because, from the outside, we are all perceived as the same Asian race.

The White man doesn't care if you're Filipino, Malaysian or Korean -- the Glass Ceiling affects us all the same. Mental health problems don't discriminate. I'm not saying we need to put ethnic identity aside entirely, I think these common problems should be used to reinvogorate the community.

7/04/2006 02:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Mac said...

Jen, hope you don't mind a post from a non-asian on this subject.

"I think the problem of this dissonance is that, in our "home countries", there is nothing tying these identities together. e.g. A native Korean feels only hatred and resentment towards their former oppressors, the Japanese."

That's a good point. Do you ever see the Asian American community getting over this issue? I mean instead of seeing themselves as Japanese-Americans, Korean-Americans, Chinese-Americans etc..

7/04/2006 06:09:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

I'd like to -- in fact I kind of feel like I have to -- say yes. I think there is enough common experiences to force us to reaffirm the pan-Asian identity. I think we need to, in some sense, to maintain political relevance.

And I think the post suggests how we can do it. I just am unsure if there is enough foresight for there to be will to pursue such coalition-(re)building.

Good question though!

7/04/2006 06:45:00 PM  
Anonymous nonwhiteperson said...

Excellent post.


7/04/2006 07:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jenn - thanks for the reply. I'm not sure that I totally agree that there is a common experience that bonds South Asians with East Asians - otherwise, why would this "Malcolm" be termed "Malcolm Yellow" and not "Malcolm Brown"? Also, in the "post-Sept. 11th" context, it seems that the ways in which South Asians are racialized are increasingly different, and have come to be associated with racist panic over the 'Muslim threat' (even if large numbers of South Asians are not Muslim, "Muslim" in the U.S. is a racially charged term).

I am not saying this in order to deepen divisions, or say that a large coalition of Asian groups is impossible, unnecessary or irrelevant. I say this because I believe the exclusion of West and Central Asians from the political discourse of what it means to be "Asian" is based on a false assumption that there aren't significant ties between these groups and "Asians" as definied in the United States. But there is, and a lot of it those links have to do with Islam - from Iran to Pakistan to Malaysia etc. This is why I feel Asian is the way many people (not yourself, but in popular discourse) use to indicate East Asia, it's the "new" way of saying "the Yellow man" - and while I agree that East Asians are racialized in particular ways that other Asians aren't, to include South and Southeast Asians, but exclude West and Central Asians in a "pan-Asian" movement seems arbitrary.


7/06/2006 02:33:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

May, I think your points are very valid, however, I believe the primary tie for Asian Americans is based on outsider treament according to appearance rather than religion. Religion is not usually worn on one's sleeve, while race is. To me, that is the factor that, imo, in the colourstruck America that we live in, separates out Western and Central Asian.

I chose to use "Malcolm Yellow", frankly because it sounded better than "Malcolm Brown", and it was initially conceived as "Y" following "X" in the alphabet, although I expanded on the initial "Malcolm Y" name because I thought it was too vague.

Nonetheless, I agree that South Asian treatment is increasingly changing compared to treament of other Asians, and that we may in fact end up seeing a redefinition of the pan-Asian identity, much to my chagrin.

7/06/2006 07:01:00 PM  
Blogger Lee Herrick said...

I really like this post (saw it first as APA for Progress). I have thought about this from time to time and have a few thoughts. I hope they come out somewhat legibly, since I am just back from China and out of blogging shape.

On the question, "Why isn't there a Malcom Yellow?" I think a number of factors contribute. First and maybe foremost is the cultural trait of APAs of community/family first and how this manifests itself in politics. There are many APA activists, but they travel in packs---the Committee of 100, OCA, JACL, you name it. Collectivism is the way. In some other cultures, all you need is a pissed off person and a microphone.

This relates to reason #2: the aversion to being singled out, for good or bad, as this relates to notions of "face" and controversy. I have a good friend who is female and SE Asian, a former news reporter. She said that they would often try to get Asians to speak on camera but that it was very difficult. When she said that, I could relate because I was once asked to answer a completely innocuous question for a news story ("Do you think a street should be named for Cesar Chavez?"), and I told the reporter I didn't want to be on camera. Some Asian cultures believe getting your picture taken is a bad omen; in my case it's just nerves and the certainty that I'll look goofy.

There are many other factors---the residue of the model minority myth suggesting Asians just be quiet and study or work hard, the hesitance of society to trust an Asian male, etc.

This leads me to some freewrite/thinking on Jenn's question, "Who would it be?" I think sexuality and religion are not as important as other rhetorical qualities such as ethos and pathos being strong in the person. The person would have to be palatable to the general public, articulate and intelligent, versed in the many Asian cultures' struggles. I also wonder if the ideal person would be a woman. Case in point---during the Vincent Chin murder trials, the person who was most visible and outright activist was Helen Zia. She was on the news, talk shows, and in the papers. Some of the most activist and outspoken literary people in the APA literary world are women---Jessica Hagedorn, Barbara Jane Reyes, etc. Many men, particularly of Japanese descent, have had to depoliticize to survive the anti-Japanese sentiment of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s (and to the present for that matter). Women are also more palatable in the media (in my opinion)---take, for instance, the large number of APA women in news journalism, as opposed to male anchors. Yes, of course this stems from White caricature-like racist creations like Charlie Chan, but the residue is still there. A woman would surely face a lot of heat---what spokesperson doesn't?---which relates to another prereq: the ability to take a lot of heat, criticism, and threats.

As far the issues that unite, of course there are some. The ones posted here, however (the glass ceiling---or, as the great new book title calls it, The Bamboo Ceiling) are not going to galvanize a community (APA or otherwise) in my opinion. All the issues are important, of course, but they do not resonate as much as farm workers not being given water or African Americans not beeing able to eat in certain restaurants. But the "hot-button" or mainstream ones are where a voice would be helpful (Abercrombie, Miss Jones, Sony Playstation)---as would the APA civil rights that are violated throughout the U.S.---especially, in my opinion, with regard to civil rights being trampled upon, such as Wen Ho Lee's eight months in prison (solitary confinement, no less) without ever having been charged with a crime.

And, guess what? The person who created and led the Wen Ho Lee National Legal Defense Fund? Cecelia Chang. A woman.

But woman or man, tall or short, I am optimistic that in my lifetime I/we will see this galvanizing force emerge, making things a little better for all of us.

7/08/2006 03:25:00 PM  

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