3:00 pm Mar. 23, 2012
Are Asians black?
It seemed less strange to ask Tuesday night, when, sitting in the packed, white-walled Bloomberg Gallery at the Museum of Chinese in America Tuesday night, a freestyle Jadakiss jam filled the air and chef and food media personality Eddie Huang burst into the room, rapping along with the money rhyme, "Yeah you know I'm in the hood like Chinese wings!"
The appearance of Huang was more stirring because it came on the heels of a rather sober and academic introduction by Ken Chen, executive director of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.
Chen had warmed up the room with a presentation touching on the legal history of race in America, the popularity of yellowface minstrelry in the nineteenth century, and role that Asian Americans played in the Black Nationalism movement, all by way of getting at “the slipperiness of racial identity.” The event was part of a series being put on by the AAWW called "After 1989," discussing racial trends and politics in the ‘90s. The series has already hosted panels on integration, white racial identity, and how multiculturalism affected the way we talk about race, and will host one more, “I Love the '90s,” next week at the Brecht Forum.
“As the ‘90s is being revived in animated gifs and floral-print dresses,” said Chen, “we thought we’d start creating an alternate history of the decade before it’s commodified.”
Yet the topic of this evening was the confluence, or lack of confluence, between black and Asian racial identities ("Are Asians Black?" was the name of a 1999 Yale Law Journal article about how the black/white paradigm leaves Asians on uncertain ground). And there was little question that it was a potent topic when Chen sat down that the Jadakiss started blasting.
Huang quickly launched into a punchy speech discussing his experiences of the racial politics of Chinese takeout restaurants in black neighborhoods (a theme that's been covered here, too, albeit very differently).
“My aunts all owned Chinese takeout places," Huang said, "and they hated their black customers, and their black customers hated them back.”
But Huang found that he himself could understand both sides of the enmity. Quoting Buggin’ Out from Do The Right Thing asking pizza parlor owner Sal “how come there ain’t no brothers up on the wall here?” Huang talked about the history of outsiders serving food to black communities as a source of tension, which he thought was exacerbated by the Chinese tendency towards isolationism (“We built the Great Wall”). He then imagined what a day in the life of a weed dealer operating out of a Chinese takeout place would feel like:
“Motherfuckers come in all day just asking for cups of ice, or taking duck sauce packets: it sucks to own a Chinese place in the hood.” Ultimately, Huang pinned racial tensions on “the one percent that owns everything and leaves us to fight for crumbs on Fulton,” and left it at that.
Next up was a discussion of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, one of the flashpoints of Asian-Black conflict in the decade.
Kai Ma, a Korean-American Los Angeleno and member of the AAWW, talked about growing up in L.A.'s K-Town and the media coverage of Korean Americans during the riots, showing images of heavily armed men and crying women in front of burned-out shops.
The riots are known as “Sa-i-gu” in Korean, literally “4/29,” and Ma described the sense in which that date marked both the traumatic induction into American society of Korean Americans and the moment when that community first became politicized.
“I swear," said Ma, "for the several years after the Riots every Korean-American person I knew was a heavily-caffeinated leftist activist.”
Novelist and poet Paul Beatty then read from The White Boy Shuffle, his 1996 debut novel that includes scenes set during the Riots. In the excerpt the novel's main character, Gunnar Kaufman, a black Angeleno poet, reacts to seeing the results of the Rodney King trial as a teen and joins in the rioting. In another passage, the people in Gunnar’s neighborhood respect a half-black half-Korean storeowner named Ms. Kim too much to loot and burn her shop, but Kim herself, inspired to an act of self-destruction by the racially-charged riots, burns down her own shop with a pair of Molotov cocktails.
Ken Chen re-took the stage to introduce the second part of the night, devoted to the idea of Asians as a model minority and to discussions about affirmative action. Chen noted that the conversation about Asian Americans often leaves out the fact that there are two very different Asian-American groups in the United States—those whose families immigrated in the nineteenth century and came in as unskilled laborers, and those who came after the 1965 loosening of immigration laws as skilled, highly-educated professionals. He then turned the floor over to Wesley Yang.
Yang, whose 2011 “Paper Tigers” article in New York magazine delved into the unnamed frustration of “Asian-American overachievers” in the professional world, addressed a 1987 Time magazine cover story, “Those Asian-American Whiz Kids.”
Yang started out with the numbers—the two highest-earning demographics in the United States are Asian-American men and women—and concluded that the “Whiz Kids” article was “a completely innocuous piece based on empirical data” about high-achieving Asian Americans. He allowed, drily, that there was some “clumsy psychologizing” about “Confucian” cultures versus “relaxed Buddhists,” but thought that today’s economic scene pretty much bears out the prediction that those whiz kids would do well.
Yang also noted that the idea of Asian Americans as a group is a “category error,” conflating ethnicity and race with geography so as to make any statement about the group “by definition erroneous.” But, taking just Vietnamese immigrants and comparing their rise out of poverty in the past two decades to the unchanging levels of black poverty, Yang reached a stirring conclusion.
“This tells us that being an impoverished immigrant from a scarred country with emotionally scarred parents is less of a barrier to success than being the descendant of slaves and being a part of a community that has been subjected to institutional racism for two hundred years.”
Finally, wrapping up the night of charged discussion, Yang joined Nicholas Lemann, author of The Big Test, and Lisa Arrastia, principal of the United Nations International School to talk about affirmative action. Lemann, who wrote a book about the S.A.T., zeroed in on the questionable merits of the word “meritocracy” itself. As he noted, the term was introduced by sociologist Michael Young as a satirical pejorative.
“Every elite ever in world history thinks of [his or her society] as a meritocracy,” he said. He added that there was a “one-generation gap” between a meritocracy and an aristocracy, and that the SAT was created to identify and cull a “super-brainy race of technocrats” from the American masses to fight world wars, not to classify every American student on a continuous scale.
Yang touched on the idea that, even if Asian Americans succeed at levels above or beyond other demographics, there’s still an ease to attaining societal power for the white elite that’s hard to teach. Lemann recalled covering high-achieving Asian-American students as a journalist in L.A. in the ‘90s, saying that families then got the sense that there was “something they weren’t doing right,” but couldn’t figure out if it was racism or something subtler.
“But the answer they found was: play golf. The kids should play golf.”
Arrastia spoke about her time working in Los Angeles high schools, and the pressure put on educators to turn students into effective consumers for their neighborhoods, but ended the evening touching back on the question of “Are Asians Black?” She paraphrased the author Junot Diaz.
“When poor people of color immigrate to the U.S., they Americanize black.” The title of the event was meant to be provocative, and a little absurd, but from that one question, the panelists managed to hold one of the most thought-provoking, confrontational discussions about race that’s happened in New York’s literary lecture scene in some time.
The final event in the Asian American Writers’ Workshop "After 1989" series will be held next week, on March 27, at Brecht Forum.
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