Archive | November, 2013

See this movie

27 Nov

I used to teach an Asian American lit class.

At the beginning of each semester, I’d ask my students what they thought the class was going to be about. Invariably, they would answer: racism, discrimination, the oppression of Asian American people…

And I’d stop them and ask: did they think we’d be talking about literature? Great literature even? About well-written stories, skillful turns of phrase and literary devices that transform ideas into experiences?

Well, yeah, of course.

And yet.

Their initial response was not surprising: in ethnic literature classes, “literature” too often takes second stage to the adjective describing whose literature. Which is really problematic because these aren’t sociology or poli sci classes: they are literature classes that focus on the written and sometimes oral tradition of a particular group. And while racial identity and racism may be a substantive part of a group’s shared history, experiences and identity, race and racism do not define that group. Nor should it overshadow their talent or artistry.

I was thinking about all of this the other night when I saw 12 Years a Slave.

It’s a must-see movie. And not just because of the true story it tells about a free black man’s abduction into slavery. Also because it’s art. From the long, quiet shots that speak volumes about endurance, to actor Chiwetel Ejiofor’s transformation from a free man into a slave waiting to be free again, this is a great movie. That is hard to watch, both because of the story and skill with which its told.

And I hope, if 12 Years a Slave ends up with an Oscar nomination, it’s not because of the sensational story, but because of the sensational acting and directing that conveyed the story. I hope we don’t lose sight of the art just because of race, and all that it brings up for us.

Enough said

26 Nov


Go, Amy.

“Misdemeanor hate”

25 Nov

First, his white roommates nicknamed him “Three-fifths,” referring to the way the government once counted blacks as just a fraction of a person. When he protested, they dubbed him “Fraction.”

Then they outfitted the four-bedroom dormitory suite they shared with a Confederate flag. They locked him in his room. They wrote the “N-word” on a dry-erase board in the living room. They fastened a bicycle lock around his neck and told him they lost the keys, then tried it again a few weeks later (

This was last month at San Jose State: “he” is a black freshman whose white roommates have been charged with misdemeanor hate-crime and battery in what is being referred to as hazing.

And let me stop right there: misdemeanor hate? hazing?

Way to downsize the language. While I understand “misdemeanor” as a legal term, the notion of “misdemeanor hate” is completely beyond me. And the actions of the three white roommates (Logan Beaschler, 18, of Bakersfield; Joseph Bomgardner, 19, of Clovis; and Colin Warren, 18, of Woodacre) wasn’t just hazing. It was terrorizing, and not just an individual. Their hate has had felony-scale impact and repercussions far beyond the SJSU community.

While they’ve already been suspended (, that’s not enough. They need to be held accountable for actions that put in jeopardy the safety and well-being of entire communities: the black community of SJSU, the community of color at SJSU, and the community of all people who stand against racism.

And I need to say to all of us who condemn racism: it’s not enough for us to be shocked and appalled at the actions of these three white students. We have to push back against colorblindness, post-racialism and all the other strategies of avoidance and denial that perpetuate and allow racism to fester, instead of shifting our attitudes and actions to racial justice.

Wow, I hadn’t noticed how low the standard is

25 Nov

I’ve been meaning to post on this because it just blew my mind when I first read about it: according to the Guardian, “cinemas in Sweden are introducing a new rating to highlight gender bias, or rather the absence of it” (

The rating is based on the Bechdel test, named after US cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who created the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. In order to pass the test, a movie: “(1) has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man” ( (Btw, that’s a link to view the strip in which Bechdel debuted her test.)

Let me repeat: Wow, I hadn’t noticed how low the standard is.

Really, that’s all it takes to pass this test? Must be easy, right?


Ellen Tejle, who directs an art-house cinema in Stockholm, observes, “The entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, all Star Wars movies, The Social Network, Pulp Fiction and all but one of the Harry Potter movies fail this test.” This despite the fact that 33% of all film characters are women, according to a study by the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film in San Diego.

I am both surprised… and not that it is apparently too much for the average movie to have a non-heteronormatively-obsessed interaction among that entire third of the screen population. (And why women constitute only a third of characters, and 11% of protagonists is also an issue.)

Definitely something to think about if your Thanksgiving holiday plans include catching a flick.

But my point here isn’t just what the Bechdel test reveals. It’s also that I didn’t even notice. I really didn’t get how appallingly bad the roles for and representations of women in film are. I mean, I knew it wasn’t great, but… yowza. And so I for one am grateful for Sweden’s implementation of the Bechdel test.

What this makes me think about is the importance of clear standards, specific criteria and quantifiable outcomes in the assessment of multiculturalism, inclusion, equity and cultural competence. What is the standard for diversity in your community? What is good enough? What is the quantity, quality and diversity of representation that symbolizes inclusion and equity? And is that, in fact, good enough?

Because it ain’t all about feelings or intentions. Not that it’s all about data (this isn’t an either-or proposition), but data–tangible outcomes–has its place in holding a community accountable for what it says it values.

… And in case you’re curious, movies that do pass the test comprise a much shorter list, but include The Hunger Games, The Iron Lady and Savages. (Not to short shrift biopics, I am particularly heartened that a flick can both pass the test and be a blockbuster a la The Hunger Games.)

More Upworthiness

22 Nov

A quick video for you this am:

And if you want to check out more from Upworthy:

Have a worthy day 🙂

LGBQ and T

22 Nov

If you’re wondering about Scot Nakagawa’s use of “LGB” (see Tuesday’s post), and my use of LGBQ (see yesterday’s post), I wanted to offer this clarification:

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer identify sexualities, that is, our attractions and emotions for different sexes. Transgender identifies a gender, which is our sense of manness, womanness, including both or neither. Neither gender nor sexuality is defined by the other, or by our sex, which is our biological identity, based on the reproductive organs we do and don’t have.

And so, while LGBTQ is a common acronym, I try to be intentional about using it and not conflate gender and sexuality. Because while homophobia can and often does by default include a fear and hatred of folks who don’t conform to our ideas about gender, transgender identity, culture and struggles are not the same as gay or lesbian identity, culture and struggles (which are also markedly different from each other, despite how we weld LG together when we talk about same-sex rights and issues).

That said, using the terms LGBTQ or LGBTTQQ (including transsexual and questioning identities) can reflect an intention to bring together a diverse community that does share the experience of being othered by heteronormative communities (that have clear expectations of gender and sex identities).

So once again, there’s no right language that will always fit, never offend and always make you and I look like people who “get it.” All we can do is intend and be open.

How (not) to handle your accidental racism

21 Nov

More from the Race Files (I’m on a kick)…

“5 Things Not To Do When Accused Of Racism: A Note To Paula Deen And The Rest of White America” (

Now I need to say upfront, I take issue with this article addressing Paula “And the Rest of White America,” not because the rest of the white US shouldn’t be paying attention, but because being white isn’t a criteria for being accused of racism, or actually having said or done something racist.

Let me clarify:

Racial discrimination is equal opportunity. That is, anyone can act out their prejudice against or in favor of their own or another racial group. White people can discriminate against Latino/as, and vice versa. Asian people can discriminate in favor of white people, and vice versa.

Racism is systemically empowered discriminated against racial groups other than the dominant group. The dominant group holds social, political and economic power, whether or not they are in the numerical majority (see South Africa under apartheid as an example). You can usually spot the dominant group because they’re “neutral”–that is, their racial identity and culture are the norm, so they go unnamed, while everyone else is identified because they’re  different (implication: from the norm). The dominant group doesn’t need to actively engage in oppressive activities and language: all they have to do to remain dominant is accept the status quo and go along with it.

Now, I hear lots of debate about racism, specifically whether or not white people are the dominant group we’re talking about when we talk about racism. Or if, theoretically, we could be talking about any group. So I return to my working definitions of “racial discrimination” and “racism”: when I consider the trifecta of social, political and economic power that is systemically (that is to say, culturally and institutionally) perpetuated and protected, locally as well as globally, I’m hard-pressed to generalize that “any” group (and therefore all kinds of different groups) benefit from racism. Just because there are pockets in the world where LGBQ folks are in the majority and even constitute the dominant group, those pockets don’t change the institutionalized fact of heterosexism and homophobia. So too with racism.

And just as LGBQ folks can actually support heterosexism and homophobia, so too can people of color support racism. So I might recommend that a more useful title for this article would be “”5 Things Not To Do When Accused Of Racism: A Note To Paula Deen And The Rest of Us.”

Nonetheless, the article is a great read. Here’s I’ll just highlight the 4th and 5th “what not to dos”:

Justify racist acts in certain circumstances as in, it’s okay to turn into a racist if someone is holding a gun to your head. If you manage to hold in your racism when you’re at your best, but react to fear or anger by immediately turning to racism, you’re a racist. In fact, fear and anger are at the very heart of racism.

Dodge. Because what distinguishes the accidental racist from an intentional one is the willingness to simply own up to your accidents and make amends.

Blogger Scot Nakagawa is right on with the observation that if you can justify racism, it’s not about the circumstances: it’s about you justifying racism. As for dodging, here’s our homework: the next time (because there will be a next time) you or I say something that is racist–or heterosexist or classist or ageist, let’s pinkie swear to stop and accept that we just participated in the unfair advantaging of some over others just because of who they are. Let’s commit to sit with what it feels like, notice what it provokes, listen to the internal scripts that begin running, observe the tactics we use to be anywhere but present with a real part of ourselves. Let’s agree to own it. Because the only way not to perpetuate all too easy systems of discrimination is to notice that we’ve been along for the ride.