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.

Proud to be a Bruin?

20 Nov

Quick post: Just saw this video, courtesy of Upworthy, a site I just discovered. This is a spoken word performance by an African American student reflecting on what it means to him to be a UCLA Bruin:
Definitely worth viewing and sharing.

Why we need to get over colorblindness

20 Nov

First, watch this:

And take a moment. Let it all out. Enjoy Steve Harvey. Watch it again.

Any theories as to why the contestant on the right would say, “Black” when asked what she knows about zombies?

Maybe she knows nothing about zombies. This is entirely possible. But still then, why was “Black” the first answer that popped to mind?

Maybe she actually thinks all zombies are black. But then, she admits, “I don’t know if they’re white, or…”

So maybe not.

I actually think it’s entirely possible that she does (or did) think zombies are black, in the same way that other people might associate zombies with adults or men. It’s all about implicit associations: zombies are evil, and I think adults are more easily and automatically associated with evil than children are. I also think men (despite Eve’s apple incident) are more normatively associated with “bad” than women are. As a colleague’s son said after their house was broken into: the burglars were probably guys because “it’s unladylike” to steal. So too with blackness: as the Implicit Association Test ( for racial preference demonstrates, we tend to associate evil with black faces more readily than with white faces. So I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a little implicit association (aka bias) going on for the contestant.

I also wonder about the fact that everyone in contestant’s field of vision is black: Steve Harvey, the other contestant, and that contestant’s family. There is no doubt that she saw people right in front of her, and that she noticed a myriad of things about each of those people, as well as all of them collectively. For example, she probably noticed that all of them have two arms and two legs. And while she may not have noticed that she was noticing this, she was noticing, nonetheless, in the same way that she would have noticed if one or all of them didn’t have two arms and two legs.

Given that she couldn’t help noticing skin color, I wonder how much the contestant on the right was conscious of the blackness standing right in front of her, and what it meant to her. How unusual, uncomfortable or surprising it may have been. And therefore, how it may have been lurking very close to her consciousness, waiting for an opportunity to announce itself–any opportunity, no matter how relevant. I wonder whether “Black” would have been so readily at the fore for her, if Richard Dawson and a non-black contestant would have been her immediate visual context.

I also wonder what this contestant thought as soon as she said, “Black.” Given her attempt to retract (“I don’t know if they’re white…”), her grimace and then her attempt to validate her answer, I sense that there was a lot going on internally for her. And I think about what Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote:

“Every man has reminiscences which he would not tell to everyone but only his friends. He has other matters in his mind which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But there are other things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself, and every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind.”

There is a lot for her to unpack about what she said, why she said it, and what it felt like to be heard saying it. And it will take great courage, honesty and willingness to grow in order for her to begin that unpacking and then to finish the job.

And what it will take first and foremost is the willingness to admit: there is no such thing as colorblindness. Only colormuteness. And on some level, she must already know that.

** Thanks to my partner AP for the link. Which I can’t stop watching.

Right is not always good

19 Nov

Last year, I started having conversations with educators and students about service and social justice: the overlap, and the difference between the two.

Here’s the gist: there are a lot of well-intentioned organizations and individuals who are trying to do good in the world. Who are doing good in the world. And at the same time are perpetuating what’s wrong with the world.

One example is the KONY2012 movement, which I’ve written about. Ending child soldiering? Definitely good. In the process, perpetuating the white savior industrial complex (, which itself perpetuates global racism? Not so good. In fact, down right wrong.

I would and have said the same for BeadforLife, an organization dedicated to “eradicating poverty one bead at a time” ( No argument with ending poverty. And a vehement argument about actively supporting the paternalistic US-Africa relationship (which includes lumping all of Africa together) while doing so.

And then there’s a recent Facebook plea to help the survivors of Typhoon Haiyan: “Come on, go through your closets and make a stop at your market. They need food, detergent, canned goods, soap. They need flip flops. Any old shoes you don’t want (”.  My question is whether we can eradicate poverty, end child soldiering and provide disaster relief without shoring up racist, nationalist, classist and sexist hierarchies and systems of oppression.

It’s not that we shouldn’t donate money or goods. It’s that we need to think critically about what we’re doing and the impact we’re having, and then figure out what else we need to do if we aren’t having the impact we intended. If we really want to do what’s right, we need to realistically assess our do-gooding.

And that brings me to the topic of supporting same-sex marriage.

I do. It seems unequivocally right and good to me.

But as blogger Scot Nakagawa points out in “Why I Support Same Sex Marriage as a Civil Right, But Not as a Strategy to Achieve Structural Change” (, supporting same-sex marriage isn’t just simply right and good. His “serious worries about the broad implications” of the eventual 50 state legalization of same-sex marriage is that this “victory” is also a concession to a problematic conservatism that dictates more than just who get to marry whom in our society. As Nakagawa writes:

Extending marriage rights to LGBT people does little or nothing to address the structure of oppressive family laws and values in society. It also does very little to change the  core of the conservative agenda which is, fundamentally, about power and control. This is evidenced by the fact that young conservatives are increasingly supportive of same-sex marriage at the same time that they continue to be champions of austerity who are deeply opposed to public funding of critical safety net programs. And many are terrible on issues of race, equating black and brown people with destructively out-of-control sexuality, crime, and government debt. So their attitudes about LGBT people may have changed, but their worldviews remain pretty much the same.

… What appears to be leading to this “success” with young conservatives points to another of my concerns. By presenting LGB (I’ll leave off the “t” here) people as basically conservative in our demands, the most mainstream faction within the LGB movement is subtly positioning us as a model minority. And it’s working. Where once attacks against LGB people relied heavily on messaging that mirrored prejudices historically used against people of color (morally debased sexual predators and criminals seeking anti-American special rights), LGB people are increasingly understood to be all-American and fundamentally non-threatening. The sales job basically seems to revolve around the idea that if you let us in, nothing really changes. And, based on the demands at the center of this agenda, this is, to a degree, true.

And, like all model minority strategies, this kind of argument plays subtly on an us vs them mentality that suggests that we ought not be vilified because we are like you, and not like the them popular prejudices associate us with…

Also troubling is my sense that the current strategies ignore something about marriage rights that ought to be obvious to anyone excluded from them, especially when that group is arguing that being excluded has real, material consequences. That is, that we are arguing to be able to use marriage as a shield against wrongs that no one, regardless of sexual orientation or marital status, should suffer. No loved one should be excluded from survivors benefits and pensions, end of life decision-making, hospital visitation, and the many other family rights reserved for married couples. And when we argue that being able to wield this shield is a right we deserve because we conform with the values of good people, that shield can become a weapon against those who are still excluded.

I agree with Nakagawa about the fundamental conservatism of the institution of marriage. Getting married myself (which as a hetero woman has always been my right) was a conflicted decision and process for me because while my relationship is mine, getting married was clearly about buying into a tradition and culture I have many and vehement questions about (don’t get me started on the tradition of giving away a bride. I am not a cow.) Even now, I prefer to refer to my partner by name or as “my partner” because, quite frankly, the word “husband” connotes some values and beliefs that I don’t stand for. (Of course, whether I use the word “husband” or not, we are married. We are–I am–part of this culture that Nakagawa critiques so insightfully.)

What Nakagawa makes me wonder is: what do I stand for? I’m not retracting my support of same-sex marriage. I absolutely support it. And it’s not enough. Because what I’m trying to stand for isn’t just extending equal rights to some more folks. It’s rethinking our rights, and embracing inclusive rights for all folks.